John Mellencamp at The Chicago Theatre in Chicago, IL

John Mellencamp performed his second night of a three-night engagement at the Chicago Theatre to a sold-out crowd.

The Chicago Theatre was about three-quarters full with people slowly filing in as the lights dimmed and a screen over the stage crackled into life. It showed John Mellencamp sitting with a representative of Turner Classic Movies who is sponsoring his tour. He spoke to the fact that this was the first time he’s worked with a sponsor for his shows before a selection of scenes from classic movies, primarily featuring James Dean and Marlon Brando, are shown with voice-over between each clip from Mellencamp. It’s clear that his image is heavily influenced by both Brando and James Dean and he spoke to what a crucial part of his development as a musician/artist these movies were. They were, he said, his comfort movies, a place he could retreat to again and again, always noticing something new each time. These movies contained characters that reminded him of people he knew and came across in real life. Indeed, he mentioned that he used to joke that James Dean wasn’t dead, you just had to come to a small town in Indiana and you’d see that guy everywhere.

Whilst the audience got somewhat restless waiting to see their hero take to the stage in person, this introduction with John’s voiceover provided some fascinating insights into some of the art that, along with his real-life experiences, helped develop his worldview and inform his songwriting. He mentioned at one point that songs and movies are the only things you can watch/listen to and they take you back to the place you were when you first saw them. This is indeed true but Mellencamp’s genius is painting a picture so vivid with his songwriting that it puts you in the place HE was when he was writing it. Regardless of whether you are from a small town in middle America (or even originally from America itself), it’s likely that on numerous occasions at a Mellencamp show, you’ll find yourself right there on Main Street or on a dusty road with the sun on your face. It’s like magic, it’s music and poetry informed by real American life and it’s a trick that very few outside of Petty, Young, Springsteen, and Dylan can perform as well as Mellencamp.

As the final movie clip ended, the house lights went fully down and the audience erupted as Dane Clark’s booming drums kicked off the live music portion of the night and the band launched into a raucous version of “John Cockers” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom. Right from the off, the quality of musicianship is evident, with Clark’s drums prominent in the mix, driving the band forward. The rest of the band, made up of long-time member Mike Wanchic on guitar, John Gunnel on bass, Troy Kinnett on keyboards, Andy York on guitar, and the returning Lisa Germano on fiddle provide an evocative and solid platform upon which John can deliver his songs.    

Of course, it’s the gravelly tones of Mellencamp himself that everyone was there to hear and they are right there, raw and emotive as ever, cultivated from a smoking habit he developed at 10 years old (another thing he mentions he learned from the movies!). After a breathless opening, Mellencamp announced that they’ll be playing “some songs you know, some songs you don’t know, some songs you can sing along with, some you can dance to, and some that might make you think a bit” and that “hopefully, by the end of the night we’ll have formed a bit of a community amongst ourselves.”   

True to his word, there were a number of recognizable tracks from his outstanding catalog but his keen eye and need to comment on the issues going on around him today were also on full display. He spoke of his disdain for the “thoughts and prayers” so often espoused by those in power these days prior to launching into a dark and powerful new track “Hey God” which featured some great fiddle from Germano and guitar work from York on the resonator. He also took time to tell the story of his encounter with a homeless girl in Portland prior to another new track, the sparse “Eyes of Portland” which he performed alone on the stage with just his acoustic, ensuring he emphasized the refrain “in this land of plenty where nothing gets done” at every opportunity to cheers from the audience.

A poignant story about his grandmother who lived to be over 100 years old preceded the beautiful “Longest Days” for which Andy York joined him on stage on acoustic. He then went back to the solo acoustic format for “Jack & Diane,” taking a pause to educate the audience on song structure as they attempted to launch into the chorus after he had only just finished the first verse: “You see – 25-year-old John wrote a second verse and I’m going to sing it!”.

The band returned to the stage for “I Always Lie to Strangers” before a special version of “The Real Life.” Mellencamp explained that this would be something a little bit different before telling the story of how he had become close friends with Joanne Woodward (Paul Newman’s widow) after Newman’s death in 2008. The two had collaborated on a spoken word version of “The Real Life” which he wanted to include in the show. He then retreated backstage with Germano and Wanchic remaining out front to provide instrumental accompaniment to Woodward’s recorded voice. It provided an entirely different take on the song and the fact that it translated so well to this format, drawing your attention to every word, demonstrates just how well Mellencamp dances on that line between lyrics and poetry.

There were reflective moments during this show that could potentially lead you to think that Mellencamp is embarking on something of a farewell tour, but we’re not sure that is the case. Whilst he mentioned during the story about his grandmother living to over 100 and his father being 94 that “I don’t think Johnny’s going to make it,” it wouldn’t surprise you at all if he did, simply through sheer force of will. He remains as feisty as ever, is still voraciously creating new music and art but, most importantly, throughout this show, he looked like he was having the time of his life. And as long as that’s the case, we don’t see him stepping back from live performances any time soon.

This was no phoned-in/greatest hits performance. It was, as promised, something a little different with Mellencamp putting his heart and soul into every moment. After the last notes of “Hurts So Good” rang out, he stayed on the stage for a few additional beats after the band had left, taking in his fully deserved standing ovation. And why not, it was a case of “mission accomplished” for the evening. We left feeling that we knew Mellencamp and all the attendees in The Chicago Theatre that little bit better, you know, as though we’d become part of a community… That, of course, was exactly what he stated he was aiming for. Bravo John…

WORDS BY: Phil Walton
PHOTOS BY: Kirstine Walton

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About Phil Walton 84 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.