By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Friday night’s sold-out John Mellencamp show at the Midland Theater was the tale of two concerts. For the first 90 minutes, Mellencamp used his vast songbook to explore the nooks and crannies of American music. Opener “Authority Song” was stripped of its big country riff and rode bare bones on the spare bass and drum line. Later in the show, “Jack and Diane” was given the same treatment, with Miriam Strum’s violin shouldering the melody.
While there weren’t any jump-to-your-feet, hands-in-the-air climaxes during this part, there were a few goose bump-inducing moments. The smallest moments were the biggest, like Mellencamp’s poignant solo, acoustic delivery of “Jackie Brown,” where he was joined by Strum at the end.
A subdued “Check It Out” had the wistful air of someone watching their grandchildren play in the yard. Later, the entire theater clapped and sang along as Mellencamp sang “Cherry Bomb” without his band or his guitar.
It was clear, however, that the crowd wasn’t expecting a low-key evening. The chatter from the bar downstairs floated into the balcony during the quiet “Longest Days.” Story/songs “Right Behind Me” and “Easter Eve” lacked a traditional chorus and struggled to captivate the crowd.
After the beautiful violin/accordion duet of “New Hymn,” the full drum kit that had been tantalizing the crowd all night was finally put to use. Starting with the heartland hymn “Rain on the Scarecrow,” Mellencamp and his six-piece backing band cut loose and delivered 30 minutes of the expected energetic sing-alongs. With each song, the band raised the volume and dropped formality. Singles like “Pink Houses” drew the biggest responses, while the band seemed to relish trotting out album cuts “The Real Life” and “No Better Than This.”
In a way, Mellencamp served as his own opening act. As the audience found their seats an hour-long documentary played. The film showed Mellencamp on tour and as he recorded his latest album at Sun Studios in Memphis, the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson once recorded, and First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.
Mellencamp recorded the album using a single microphone to capture the entire band in one take. The approach may puzzle some fans, but it’s clear from the first half of the night that his songwriting chops are as strong as ever. The struggle will be to win fans over to new arrangements and sounds that don’t resemble the long-loved radio hits.
After a little more than two hours, the house lights were up, and Mellencamp was safely shuttled to his Airstream trailer parked behind the building. A large portion of the crowd lingered, whistling and clapping in vain as the stage was cleared. The evening wasn’t a complete success, but it was enough to leave them wanting more.
Setlist: Authority Song; No One Cares About Me; Deep Blue Heart; Death Letter; Walk Tall; The West End; Check It Out; Save Some Time To Dream (solo, acoustic); Cherry Bomb (a capella); Don’t Need This Body; Right Behind Me; Jackie Brown (solo, acoustic); Longest Days; Easter Eve; Jack and Diane; Small Town (solo, acoustic); New Hymn; Rain on the Scarecrow; Paper and Fire; The Real Life; Human Wheels; If I Die Sudden; No Better Than This; Pink Houses; R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.