I just returned from the John Mellencamp concert at Atlanta's Fox Theater and I must say John still has the fire at 59. Mellencamp has been one of Rock and Roll's icons with twenty-two Top 40 hits throughout his career. His brand of Heartland Rock and Roll is recognized for its grassroots, rural character making the claim for the working middle class and agricultural farm life. Mellencamp has always had a tight band featuring a fast beat with a strong percussion and bass signature. Add some fancy fiddle playing with electric and acoustic guitars, synthesizers, and Mellencamp's passionate raspy vocals and you have all the ingredients for rock and roll that will lift you out of your seat and start you dancing around the room.
Mellencamp's show deviates from the current trends in slick techno productions. The set is a simple stage with traditional spot lighting and a simple backdrop - there is nothing techno about this show except the excellent sound system. This could easily be a set for Saturday Night Live or one of the late night talk shows. The performance is very traditional, it's pure Mellencamp.
In place of a warm up band, the show begins with an hour long documentary film "Its About You" on the making of Mellencamp's latest album, "No Better Than This". The film is shot using a grainy film technique to give it a low-budget, dated, and nostalgic feel. The screen is set up in the middle of the stage much as one might have set up in a living room for 8mm home movies in the 1960's. The audience is introduced to the new material on the album and they get a look into the emotions, dialog, settings, and jumpy videography that went into recording these songs on location. Then there is a 20 minute intermission and the live show begins. A quick introduction and the curtain rises.
One thing that struck me in a funny way is the different theme that Mellencamp brings to this tour to promote his latest album. In the past Mellencamp has written anti-government, politically fueled songs about rural farm life, middle class strife, and racial tensions. His music was written to influence people and opinions. I would have expected with all the problems with the collapse of the middle class, home foreclosures, unemployment, social and political polarization, climate change and more that John Mellencamp would have some pretty strong words to say in his songs but, in his new album, it seems that he is questioning his own mortality. Many of his messages deal with the the duel between the devil and Jesus as well as his fear (or lack of fear) of dying. One act features John "dancing with the devil". At another point in the show he shares a story of laying in bed with his dying grandmother as she calls the lord to take them both. And Mellencamp even jokes about his smoking habit saying he's "smoked over 650,000 cigarettes in his life - can he get his money back" and then he sings a song about his body being worn out. These new songs are still characterized by the strong bass and drums of his early work but the tone is darker and more haunting with a slower beat.
Adding humor to the performance midway through the show, Mellencamp tells a story of meeting a guy named "Jerry" on the streets of Atlanta earlier in the day. Jerry says he is coming to the show and asks John to play his old songs at the show. John is not interested in playing his old stuff and blurts back at Jerry, "the past is nothing" but then he agrees to sing one song Jerry requested, "Cherry Bomb" which he does as a tribute to Jerry in a strange way. John sings Cherry Bomb illuminated by a single spotlight with no musical accompaniment nor does he strike a single chord on his guitar but the power and rhythm of his voice are so moving it brings tears to the eyes. After the song, Mellencamp returns to his slate of new material up until he announces the end of the show when he asks people to sing along if they know the words to a few of his older songs. The concert ends with an upbeat, high energy compilation of several hits including "Scarecrow", "R-O-C-K in the USA", and "Paper in Fire". After the band leaves the stage, Mellencamp takes a couple bows and exits himself. No gimmicky "keep the lights dim while the crowd cheers for an encore" - this concert is over.
Sam Dobrow is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Visit his blog samdobrow.com for more information and content.