John Mellencamp's band will never be 'the human jukebox'
By L. KENT WOLGAMOTT
After more than 100 sold out shows over nearly two years, John Mellencamp’s “Plain Spoken” tour is coming to an end with a string of fall shows, all set in theaters and performing arts centers.
Those usually aren’t places associated with rock shows. But Mellencamp’s guitarist Mike Wanchic says they’ve proven to be the perfect fit for the veteran rocker and his superb band to showcase four decades worth of music.
“I think the whole point is trying to match a vibe we’re trying to create on stage with the room,” says Wanchic, who joins Mellencamp and the rest of the band at Borgata’s Event Center 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15.
“There’s such a treasure trove of material that you can choose from when you’ve done 20-some albums,” Wanchic says. “The name of the game anymore is music and art put together. That’s the whole concept of the tour.”
Wanchic acknowledges that those who now come to see Mellencamp are often older, many having followed him since the ’70s and ’80s, and they appreciate the nice indoor venue.
“You want to respect your audience and not put them under a tin roof in August when it’s 150 degrees,” Wanchic says. “I’ve been there too many times.”
But the primary reason that the concert halls are a good fit for the tour is, musically, Mellencamp and the band have mined their catalog for some lesser-heard songs, like “Lawless Times,” “Minutes to Mystery” and “Isolation of Mister” to go along with the hits.
“There are some really cool tunes we want to play,” Wanchic says. “You need to pay respect to every album on some level because there are memories and meanings attached to each one. I can remember hearing The Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ when I was a kid in Florida walking on the boardwalk with my brother, the first time I looked at girls. You have to respect that. And you have to respect the hits. When Neil Young plays, I want to hear ‘Old Man’ along with his new material. He did it just by himself at Farm Aid. It was great.”
Adding new material, which is likely to happen with a song or two on the final leg of the tour, also keeps the shows fresh for both the audience and the band. Wanchic has no interest in becoming a part of a human jukebox that plays the same set of songs over and over for decades.
“The day that comes is the day I quit,” Wanchic says. “If it’s not a fresh new element that’s going somewhere, what’s the point? At that point, you’re going to the office.”
Wanchic, who has been with Mellencamp for 40 years and is one of his primary collaborators in the studio, says the band unintentionally created what’s been tagged as the “heartland rock” sound over the course of about a decade.
“If you take it all the way back to ’82, we kind of found our voice,” he says. “We were young, we were rockers and we were passionate about it. At the time we had two guitar players, a drummer and John, no bass player. We decided we’d make this record, just stripped down with big guitars and drums. That was ‘American Fool.’ We suddenly went from fool to cool.
“When it came up to ‘Scarecrow,’ (in 1985) we’d used up that concept,” Wanchic says. “We decided to expand and started exploring Appalachian music, country music. I brought mandolin and dobro. We hired a violin player. That’s how we came up with that heartland sound.”
Since then the band has largely worked inside those confines, rolling gospel and soul with the country and Appalachian sounds mixed into rock ’n’ roll — and definitely not changing to keep up with the pop of the times.
“We’re not smart enough to do that,” Wanchic says. “There’s a beauty in that. That’s what it’s all based on. John’s a real songwriter. He’s coming up with real songs with real themes and real lyrics. You have to match the music with the song.
“That’s how records should be made, not put together from a beat and going backward,” he says. “I understand pop records and how they’re made and why they’re made that way. But whatever you put on a track needs to enable the lyric and the melody. That’s our concept and we’ve lived and died by it.”
That, of course, means Mellencamp hasn’t had a radio hit since the mid ’90s. But he has released a string of well-regarded albums through 2014’s “Plain Spoken,” and his ’80s and ’90s hits like “Hurts So Good,” “Pink Houses,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” and “What If I Came Knocking,” to name a few, stand up as strongly today as they did decades ago. The shows remain stellar.
“There’s a simple reason for that,” Wanchic says. “Honesty. Honesty in the music, honesty in the performance, honesty in the song, honesty in the lyric.”http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/attheshore/headliners/john-mellencamp-s-band-will-never-be-the-human-jukebox/article_4476468b-d048-5f33-aadf-3e15c571f114.html