Great show by John Mellencamp a couple of months ago. It started off a little rough. Turner Classic Movies is sponsoring the tour, so we got to see bits of black & white movies for about an hour — well, it felt like forever. Definitely some classics. Don’t get me wrong: I love The Grapes of Wrath as much as the net person (truthfully, probably more), but even I was getting bored and ready to move on to the musical portion of the show by the time the concert actually started). The natives were definitely getting restless. It is the only concert I’ve ever been to where there was actual booing, and before the artist ever hit the stage.
There was no opener. He’s John Mellencamp; he doesn’t need an opener. He has a plethora of hits that he can perform on his own merit and keep an audience begging for more, which he did all night. But John Mellencamp is still John Mellencamp. He still has that bad boy persona, challenging authority, thumbing his nose at the proper and well0regarded. He does what he wants to, when he wants to. He might be older, but some things about him will likely never change. He smoked throughout the whole show, from the first song forward. He chewed gum, then a little later, proceeded to throw his gum across the stage. He spat on the stage. He cussed like a sailor. All in the Mother Church, the sacred Ryman Auditorium of Nashville, TN. I don’t know if anyone explained the “rules” and sanctity of the Ryman to Mellencamp before the performances; even if they did, he probably thought, “whatever,” and decided to do it his way, like he’s always done. More than a few feathers were ruffled, especially over the spitting on the stage bit. I’ve never been to a show quite like it.
I sat one row behind where we sat for the ACM Awards a few years ago. I sat between couples from California and Minnesota, both of whom were traveling to Memphis for the next shows. That’s dedication, because each couple was in Nashville exclusively for this show. The view was fantastic. As always at The Ryman, the acoustics were unbelievable. The backup band performed beautifully, one member having played with Mellencamp for fifty years now. Mellencamp is a masterful storyteller and took breaks between several songs to talk about the stories behind the songs themselves, or just to talk about people who have inspired his music. He talked about his grandmother, who died when she was 100; his 93-year-old father, who was somewhere in the crowd that night; and then said of himself, after lighting up another cigarette, “I don’t think I’ll make it that long: I just read recently on the Internet that smoking is bad for your health,” which incited immense laughter from the audience.
Now, the music… The music was exquisite! No stray notes or pitchiness. A few words or phrases forgotten in a song or two, which he shook his head to and laughed off. (Hey, when you have the body of music that he does, who can expect every bit to be sheer perfection, right?) He went from classic hits to some lesser-known tunes with ease. There was a great segment where two musicians from the band played with spoken word poetry of his lyrics read by the famous actress, Joanne Woodward, who hasn’t been able to speak now for years, due to a medical condition. For me, this was bone-chillingly beautiful. It made up for him spitting on the stage in terms of grace and gratitude for others. From “Paper and Fire,” all the way to “Hurts So Good,” he made it easy for everyone in attendance to find a favorite moment and a song to walk down memory lane and feel like a kid again to. I was really surprised when he sang “Jack and Diane” relatively early in the set, but thrilled when he basically allowed the audience to sing it to him, and the audience did so with near perfection. There were so many emotional moments for me. “Small Town,” which has come to be one of my favorites, although I hated it when I was younger, running from everything I thought I hated about living in a small (hick) town when all I wanted was to be successful and suave, especially made me tear up, comparing who I have become with that young girl who just didn’t understand who she was or who she could be, despite where she lived at any point. “Rain on the Scarecrow” has always given me chills,” having grown up on a farm myself, and seeing over the decade how the plight of the American farmer has declined more and more rapidly with the passage of time. And great songs like “Little Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb,” where everyone joins in, and you remember special people and events from your life as you sing them, can’t help but take you back. After “Hurts So Good,” he bowed and left the stage. For a few moments, everyone cheered and chanted, waiting for an encore. But the house lights came up. That was it. The end. No encore. Which, truthfully, made me a little sad. Then I tool a deep breath and registered the full range of the show he’d just delivered. And how could I possibly be disappointed in that whole experience? Definitely worth the time, money, and effort to get out there and finally see one of the still-great artists doing what he does best.