Au-Rene Theater, Broward Center for the Performing Arts
Thursday, March 3, 2011
"I admire John. He's trying to survive in a tough business. Yet, he's stripping it down rather than flowering it up."
That statement comes from photographer Kurt Markus, whose documentary It's About You opened John Mellencamp's rare South Florida appearance Thursday at the Au-Rene Theater in Fort Lauderdale. It provided insight into why Mellencamp ranks with Springsteen, Seger, and Fogerty as the quintessential American rocker -- an artist whose sentiments and sympathies are a reflection of a workingman's no-nonsense philosophy. Capturing him on the road and in makeshift studios, the grainy photography was shot in Super 8 with an off-handed candor that belies any epic attempt. By the time Mellencamp and band hit the stage after a brief intermission, the audience feels like they know him that much better.
"John's show is basically just him and his band," Markus says toward the end of the film. "There's no elaborate big screens or pyrotechnics, no light show or dancers." It's simply a man who's long since become adept at his craft, making music that reflects his heart and soul.
Indeed, after affirming his journeyman stance with his last three releases -- 2008's darkly titled Life Dark Love and Freedom, last year's equally apocalyptic No Better Than This, and the career-spanning box set On the Rural Route 7609 -- John Mellencamp could correctly be referenced as Woody Guthrie's heir apparent. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer effectively donned that guise last night, while also asserting his ability to rock, reflect, and reminiscence. Dressed in a simple blue suit and a tight black T, he led his six-piece band -- Michael Wanchic (guitar), Andy York (guitar), Miriam Sturm (violin), John Gunnell (electric and upright bass), Dane Clark (drums), and Troye Kinnett (accordion/keyboards) -- through a stirring two-hour set that alternated between full-band rave-ups and solitary acoustic readings, its two dozen offerings culled mainly from reworked greatest hits and the aforementioned albums.
It's to Mellencamp's credit that he's not content simply to spin out the crowd favorites and coast on perfunctory performances. For a man who turns 60 later this year, he's remarkably spry, possessing a polished stage presence that has him waltzing across the stage like the hippest MC. His voice, gruff and sandpapery from an apparently unquenchable smoking habit, suits the new material well, making the swampier selections like "Walk Tall," "No One Cares About Me," "What If I Came Knocking," and "No Better Than This" sound even more ominous than before. Truth be told, he's wandered several paces beyond the blue-collar rock that was once his standard calling card. Blues, folk, gospel, and even occasional cabaret -- as evidenced by the sly vamp "Right Behind Me" -- play an integral part in his presentation. And when Sturm and Kinnett took the spotlight with an instrumental ballad "New Hymn" as the other musicians took a respite, the detour into Celtic realms still managed to maintain the momentum.
That's not to say Mellencamp diverted entirely. The opening "Authority Song" asserted his insurgency while robust readings of "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire," "Check It Out," "Pink Houses," and finale "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." found the crowd on their feet and embracing every note. In fact, "R.O.C.K." is arguably the most effective concert capper ever devised, and when Mellencamp invited an audience member up on stage for some impromptu dancing and a brief turn at the microphone, it was clear that this indeed was a song meant to rally the masses. Even when he diverted from the template -- most notably on a jaunty, reworked version of "Jack and Diane," an a cappella "Cherry Bomb" (supposedly done as a special request, although he performs it every show) and an acoustic "Small Town" -- he proved himself a reliable crowd pleaser, delivering with both credibility and conviction.
There was no divide between Mellencamp's contemporary catalog and the sepia tones of his newer material. All maintain that homage to the heartland initially inspired by songs like "Jackie Brown," "Pink Houses," "Rain on the Scarecrow," and "Small Town." More populist than pop these days, he gives Springsteen a race for his money when it comes to securing an audience embrace. While he refrains from investing himself wholly in politics and pontification, his social concerns reside just below the surface. "It says in the preamble to the Constitution that the government must provide for the defense of the country and the welfare of its citizens," he observed at one point. "So why does the government always seem to have money for defense and not for the welfare?"
Indeed, Mellencamp shows himself a powerful rock 'n' roll preacher, and the fact that the crowd consisted mostly of people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s served as testament to his current standing as an elder statesman of sorts, one that's earnest and yet still approachable. "Try not to be too judgmental," he advised. "So others will not judge you." It's cautionary guidance, and a lesson he himself has heeded well. If any judgment were to be rendered, he'd clearly come out a winner.
Personal bias: His admonishment to the younger set to avoid confrontation with anyone boasting a streak of gray hair was especially telling. It's about time an artist embraced the older generation and affirmed their relevance.
Random detail: Guitarist Michael Wanchic could offer a lesson in job security. He's been with Mellencamp's backing band 35 years.
By the way: To the two loudmouths sitting behind me who insisted on offering their own commentary during the documentary: No, the film wasn't boring, and yeah, we believe that your brother used to hang out with Johnny Depp at the Old Agora concert club in Hallandale. It's just that nobody really cares, especially when you insist on bragging about it while the rest of us are trying to enjoy the show.
"No One Cares About Me"
"The West End"
"Check It Out"
"Save Some Time to Dream"
"Don't Need This Body"
"Right Behind Me"
"Jack and Diane"
"Rain on the Scarecrow"
"Paper in Fire"
"The Real Life"
"What If I Came Knocking"
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"If I Die Sudden"
"No Better Than This"
"R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."