BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
“I don’t think that anybody in 1975 imagined that we would still be doing this today,” John Mellencamp stated near the end of a 25 minute documentary video that served as an overview of his long career which preceded his performance at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland Thursday night, adding “The longevity of this is surprising.”
But over four decades later, the artist initially branded as John Cougar by his record company against his will has more than established his own identity, and earned universal respect for a career that’s seen over 40 million album sales worldwide on the way to induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The 67 year old native of Seymour, Indiana has evolved into a poignant storyteller. Telling tales of small-town life and the struggles of growing up and living in middle-America, Mellencamp has become a champion of the little man, as evidenced by his co-founding of Farm Aid in 1985 with Willie Nelson and Neil Young.
Just over three decades later, the program has raised over $ 55 million to help farmers along with changing a system that allows industrial agriculture to dominate a trade that often overlooks food from family farms.
Taking the stage in a black mechanics jumpsuit surrounded by a nattily attired band just four months after the release of Other People’s Stuff, his 24th studio album which featured ten covers recorded for various tributes or soundtracks along with four from his own catalog, Mellencamp wasted little time making it clear that a career spanning retrospective was in store for the sold-out crowd.
Opening with “Lawless Times” from 2014’s Plain Spoken, the raspy voiced midwesterner fluidly interspersed an array of songs which demonstrated he was a champion of both social and economic issues along with a significant amount of his greatest hits.
A pair of cuts from the midst of his commercial peak in 1985 followed with Scarecrow‘s “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town,” which brought the audience to it’s feet for the first of many occasions. The trip down memory lane would continue shortly as “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “Check It Out,” one of four cuts from 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee provided yet another sense of nostalgia.
Introducing “Longest Days” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom, Mellencamp delivered a humorous detailed backstory of the songs roots involving his then nearly 100 year old grandmother, who called him “Buddy.” Shortly before her death, blind and certainly no longer a cougar, she called him to her bedside, telling him they needed to pray.
After an “uncomfortably long” silence, Mellencamp’s grandmother concluded her prayer with “Me and Buddy are ready to come home !” Unable to stop himself, he screamed “Grandma, what the f*ck ? Buddy’s not ready to come home. Buddy’s got a lot more singing he intends to do.”
Coming full circle to end the story, he shared, “When she was 99, she said ‘Buddy, I love you, but you’re going to find out life is short even in your longest days.”
Next, a passionate acoustic version of “Jack & Diane” from American Fool quickly evolved into a sing-along little ditty about two American kids growing up in the heart land. It served as a unique interpretation of Mellencamp’s only hit to reach the top of the charts (he’s had ten in the Top 10), spending nearly the entire month of October 1982 there.
It was followed by the song “Easy Target” from 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, his most recent album of primarily original content. It’s another political song that makes a statement in the age of Trump. Released on the eve of his inauguration, it includes the lines “Black Lives Matter / Who we trying to kid / Here’s an easy target / Don’t matter, never did / Crosses burning / Such a long time ago / 400 years and we still don’t, let it go.”
The remainder of the show was an onslaught of hits and fan favorites. Aided by the talents of violinist Miriam Sturm (in a ball gown) and pianist Troye Kinnett, along with long-time guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York (also a member of Ian Hunter’s Rant Band), the band delivered powerful performances of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire” and “Crumblin’ Down,” a protest song about the rampant deregulation of the Reagan era. It provided the feeling of some good old fashioned arena rock’n’roll as the evening wore down, while still emphasizing the plight of farmers and other working class Americans.
With a closing kick of hits ranging from the rambunctious “Authority Song” to the timeless “Pink Houses” and the nostalgic “Cherry Bomb,” much ground had been covered and there were only a handful of rocks left unturned by a musician who has successfully fought to make a difference.
At the cusp of beginning his sixth decade as an entertainer, little question should remain that the native Indianian belongs on a short list with Messrs Springsteen, Dylan, Petty and Seger as one of the most prolific poets to be produced on these soils.
The John Mellencamp Show continues tonight at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara before concluding next week in Tuscon and Albuquerque.