Times change; John Mellencamp doesn’t
BY WALTER TUNIS
Contributing Music Critic
In viewing the current artistic profile of John Mellencamp, one is tempted to paraphrase that recent Nobel Prize recipient Bob Dylan. The times are indeed changing, even if the temperament behind them hasn’t.
The Indiana rocker’s performance at the EKU Center for the Arts on Wednesday marks his first Central Kentucky appearance since a Rupp Arena concert in the spring of 1988 — a time when songs from his then-current album, “The Lonesome Jubilee,” were all over radio and MTV, trumpeting an earnest, blue-collar electricity many critics took to calling heartland rock. It was a vague and uninformative label at best, but it was at least an attempt to summarize the social standing of Mellencamp’s music — specifically, its rural Midwestern sensibility, working-class appeal and love of elemental rock ‘n’ roll that reflected and encouraged the very literary nature of the characters that populated his songs. Jersey had Springsteen. The Hoosier kingdom had Mellencamp.
In those days, the two artists seemed to walk in each other’s footsteps on the road. During March of 1988, both played Rupp within two weeks of each other — Springsteen behind the dour “Tunnel of Love,” his last record (and tour) before disbanding his famed E Street Band for nearly a decade, and Mellencamp behind “The Lonesome Jubilee,” arguably still his best work and certainly the most stirring and artful record with a potent band that included drummer Kenny Aronoff, violinist Lisa Germano and former Lexingtonian Mike Wanchic (the only holdover today from that unit).
Mellencamp’s activist role, one cemented on 1985’s “Scarecrow,” was also on full display at the time with the annual Farm Aid benefit he co-founded with Willie Nelson and Neil Young still in its infancy. A narrative vitality would continue to populate Mellencamp’s stronger albums through the years: “Human Wheels” (1993), a pair of T Bone Burnett-produced works, “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” (2008) and “No Better Than This” (2010), and his newest studio effort, “Plain Spoken” (2014).
The latter frames the performance portrait of the present-day Mellencamp — an artist who is obviously older and perhaps hardened by the times that surround songs like “Lawless Times” (which has served as show opener at many of his recent performances), “Troubled Man” and “Tears in Vain.” But the sense of reflection, heated as it sometimes becomes, ties these songs to the Mellencamp of the mid- and late ’80s.
There remains an upstart attitude at play. “Lawless Times” may churn to a more elemental blues and boogie grind than something like “Authority Song” from 1983 and Mellencamp may reveal a smoker’s wheeze in his singing today that is more a product of age (he turned 65 earlier this month) than sagely intent. But the mix of celebration and restlessness, of introspection and social commentary, really hasn’t changed. So there is little doubt as to how well “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man” might sound next to hits like “Pink Houses” and “Check It Out” that defined the transition of John Cougar (the singer’s reluctant stage persona on his earliest recordings) to John Mellencamp.
His days as an arena act are behind him, though. Mellencamp plays mostly theaters and, in the case of the Richmond performance, arts centers these days — settings that certainly suit his songs. But the simple fact of the matter is the current pop market isn’t always inviting to age. Sure, Springsteen may still fill arenas, but even Boss diehards have to admit that’s more the product of a resoundingly popular back catalogue than the result of his newer work. In that regard, he and Mellencamp are essentially equals. Both tap into the social fabric of America with songs political and personal. Similarly, both can’t get a record played by Top 40 radio if their lives were at stake.
Of course, it’s also a good bet such an endorsement is of little concern to Mellencamp in 2016.
“I’m doing my favorite occupation,” he told Vanity Fair magazine in January. “I work for no one, never have worked for anyone. I haven’t had a boss since my father, so I’ve been very fortunate in the fact that I’ve been able to live for myself and live the way I have chosen to live.”IF YOU GO
: Carlene CarterWhen
: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26Where
: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive at Eastern Kentucky University, RichmondTickets
: Ekucenter.com, Mellencamp.comhttp://www.kentucky.com/entertainment/music-news-reviews/article109633132.html#storylink=cpy