Back in the Bay Area for the first time in four years, John Mellencamp delivered a career spanning retrospective of his greatest hits at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco Friday night.
Nearly five decades after his debut, the artist initially branded as John Cougar against his will by his record company has more than established his own identity, earning universal respect for a career that’s seen over 60 million album sales worldwide on the way to induction into the Roll & Roll Hall of Fame.
The 71 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 $70 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 nattily attired in a black suit following last years release of Strictly A One-Eyed Jack, his 25th studio album, Mellencamp wasted little time making it clear that an evening of well known songs was in store for the sold-out crowd at the intimate theatre built in 1922.
Opening with “John Cockers” from 2008’s ife Death Love and Freedom, the raspy voiced midwesterner fluidly interspersed an array of songs which quickly demonstrated he was a champion of both social and economic issues along with a significant amount of his best known cuts.
An early presentation from the midst of his commercial peak in the mid-80’s of The Lonesome Jubilee‘s “Paper in Fire,” followed by Scarecrow‘s “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town,” brought the audience to it’s feet for the first of many occasions. The trip down memory lane would continue shortly as “Jackie Brown” and “Check It Out,” one of four cuts from 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee provided yet another sense of nostalgia.Introducing an acoustic version of the recently written and unreleased “The Eyes of Portland,” Mellencamp detailed how he wrote the song after trying to help out a barefoot homeless woman he met outside a diner in the City of Roses. Holding out some money as a gesture to assist her, he described how she grabbed the money out of his hand and took off running, before turning back to scream “Thank you Mister, now I don’t have to blow some guy tonight.” It wouldn’t be the last time his banter turned blue as numerous F-Bombs were to follow.
Next up was “Longest Days” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom and Mellencamp delivered a humorous detailed backstory of the song’s origins 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.”
A passionate solo acoustic version of “Jack & Diane” from American Fool quickly evolved into a sing-along little ditty about two American kids growing up in the heartland. 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.
Not much later, the remainder of the two hour set would prove to be a non-stop onslaught of hits and fan favorites. Aided by the talents of a six person band (and three mannequins) featuring violinist Lisa Germano (who recently returned to tour with Mellencamp for the first time in nearly three decades), 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” where Germano shined along with “Lonely Ol’ Night.” A memorable ten minute medley of “Crumblin’ Down” with an extended raunchy version of Van Morrison and Them’s “Gloria” was another of the evening’s numerous high points. .
The encore free set concluded with the timeless “Pink Houses” and “Chasing Rainbows” from the new album before the evocative “Cherry Bomb” and “Hurts So Good” brought the festivities to a close. Surprisingly, only two songs were played from Strictly A One-Eyed Jack, one of Mellencamp’s strongest efforts in years further propelled by a trio of duets with Bruce Springsteen. 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.
Now well into 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’s Live and In Person tour returns to the Golden Gate for a final concert tonight before before continuing in Fresno on Sunday and Sacramento on Tuesday.