REVIEW: John Mellencamp at F.M. Kirby Center still playing great music, still improving
By John J. Moser
It’s fair to conjecture that, 34 years ago when John Mellencamp wrote the song “Jack & Diane” with its lyrics “Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone,” he wasn’t envisioning a time when he would be twice the age he was then and still performing it.
But since that time – when, as he sang in 1987’s “Cherry Bomb,” just five years later, “we were young and we were improving” – Mellencamp has surprised perhaps even himself by creating more great music that proved the thrill of living isn’t the only fodder for great songs.
At Wilkes-Barre’s F.M. Kirby Center on Friday, Mellencamp, now 65, played a 19-song (including an instrumental by his band), 95-minute show that included many of his early hits, but often presented them from an older, more wizened perspective – but made them no less successful.
And with them, he offered newer songs that resonated perhaps differently, but just as strongly with a sold out audience that, like Mellencamp, also has grown older.
Among them were the show’s two first songs, both from his most recent album, 2014’s “Plain Spoken,” after which his current tour is named.
The opening “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man” told of the unsettled situation of both today’s society and our personal lives, and Mellencamp sang them in a Dylanesque growl – the first song boozy and bluesy, sounding like Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35,” the second warm and confessional.
Later in the set, another song from the disc, “The Isolation of Mister,” talked even more of the place Mellencamp finds himself – as likely does much of his audience: “Never looked forward to the future/Never enjoyed where I’ve been.”
One of the night’s best songs, “Longest Days” from his 2008 disc “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” was a font of such wisdom.
In a spotlight on acoustic guitar, Mellencamp sang its lines such as “Nothing lasts forever/Your best efforts don't always pay”; “So you pretend not to notice/That everything about us has changed”; and “All I got here Is a rear view mirror/Reflections of where we been,” aptly changing the first-person perspective on the record to include his listeners.
Mellencamp even took a turn at the blues, singing, again in that Dylan growl, a slow piano-and-voice burn on “The Full Catastrophe” from 1996’s “Mr. Happy Go Lucky,” and doing Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passing” – though he did a surprisingly limber dance and spin as he wailed vocally to slide guitar.
And he did a gospel number with opening act Carlene Carter –the fun and bouncy “My Soul’s Got Wings” from their duet album “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies,” due out in February.
But the best part of the concert was how Mellencamp, backed by a skilled and sympathetic six-person band, delivered his biggest hits in a way that both reminded of the celebrations of life they were back when they were released, as well as added a older perspective.
“Pop Singer” still reminded that “I never wanted to be no pop singer,” but was harder and more forceful. “Check It Out” was even more wistful and ethereal, its violin soul-searing, as Mellencamp sang, “Is this all that we’ve learned about living?”
And yet the crowd was up and dancing and gave it a huge cheer, as if it, too, was a celebration of making it this far.
His fiddle and accordion players even did an instrumental medley of “Hurt So Good” and “I Need a Lover,” two songs Mellencamp had left out of recent shows, perhaps because he no longer connected to them.
And he prefaced “Jack & Diane,” his biggest hit, by telling the crowd, “I don’t know why I play it, actually. I wrote it so long ago. But I play it because I know you want to hear it.” He played it slower, solo acoustic, and the audience gleefully sang all the words – even forcing Mellencamp to stop when it sang the chorus early.
Mellencamp closed the show with a run of some of his biggest hits, and like the ornery cuss her portrays himself as, attacked all of them with fervor.
“Rain on the Scarecrow” was dynamic and ominous. “Crumblin’ Down” booming, rumbling and loud – and by the end of it, Mellencamp was throwing punched at the air. “Paper in Fire” and its lyric “We keep no check on our appetite” resonated even more in this era.
And ”Authority Song” had the crowd dancing again – clearly, like Mellencamp, resisting time with its dismissal of age: “Growing up leads to growing old and then to dying/And dying to me don't sound like all that much fun." Mellencamp even added a two minute segue of the 1960s song “Land of 1,000 Dances.”
There were songs left unsung: "Lonely Ol' Night" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” would have been great to hear.
But he closed the main set with a wonderful “Pink Houses” – deeper, more reflective, perhaps more jaded and, with its violin, more mournful than the original. But it connected deeply with the crowd, who made it a Springsteen-esque call-and-response singalong.
Before the encore, Mellencamp talked about how members of his band have been with him 40 years, and how instead of living the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, they talk about the old times.
“The only problem with talking about old times is you got to be old to talk about them,” he said, before playing a great “Cherry Bomb.”
“Seventeen has turned 35/I’m surprised we’re still living,” he sang, and yet – at nearly double that larger number now -- finished the song with a jump and swing.
Not only is Mellencamp still living, as the song says, he's still improving.http://www.mcall.com/entertainment/lehigh-valley-music/mc-review-john-mellencamp-at-f-m-kirby-center-still-playing-great-music-still-improving-20161015-story.html