April 1, 2011
Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie
Grand Prairie, TX USA
Review by Lisa Sullivan
Photos by Barry Bond
The first time I saw John Mellencamp perform I was eighteen years old and a freshman in college. The year was 1982. He was raw and full of energy and he exuded sexuality. Ten years have passed since I last saw him perform.
Sunday evening, with my child in tow to celebrate his upcoming fifth birthday, I headed to Jones Hall to see the man whose music I had grown up on. I wondered if Mellencamp would still be the performer I had fallen in love with all those years ago. Would he still have the moves, the pipes and the raw energy? After all he was approaching sixty.
I was not disappointed. And my child had the time of his life as well.
The night began with the screening of the documentary, "It's About You", a gritty film by Kurt Markus that chronicles the making of Mellencamp's latest release, "No Better than This". The film was engaging and entertaining. At times it almost seemed to be more about the narrator's journey than Mellencamp's, but the formula worked. Highlights included footage of legendary author and civil rights activist Cornel West attending a Mellencamp show, and a retelling of a comment made by Johnny Cash that John Mellencamp was one of America's ten best songwriters; quipped Mellencamp, "You should have gotten that on camera". There was also coverage of his visit to a Savannah church that was part of the Underground Railroad for slaves on their road to freedom. John's reverence for the people he met along the way spoke volumes about the character of the man who was about to take the stage.
After a brief intermission the house lights went down and a Johnny Cash classic, "God's Gonna Cut You Down" thundered throughout the hall. Then the opening chords of "Authority Song" rang out and Mellencamp took the stage to the delight of the mostly middle-aged crowd, a few of them like me who had brought their children along for the ride.
After hooking everyone with the old and familiar, he launched into several of his newer, heavily blues influenced tunes, still rocking but letting the crowd know he was in charge. The new material is a departure from Mellencamp's traditional straight ahead rock songs that are often delivered in concert by larger than life bands, but it allowed his roots to shine through gloriously. After all, he is a simple Midwestern boy, and he is clearly right at home with a small band playing blues drenched rock and roll. Standouts included "No One Cares about Me", a reworked version of "Walk Tall", the gritty and haunting "West End", and a beautiful acoustic version of "Save Some Time to Dream", a thoughtful life lesson delivered as only Mellencamp can, "Save some time to dream, because your dream might save us all".
Mellencamp didn't delve too deeply into politics as his songs often do, but he did take time to briefly address the human condition and man's selfishness, before he rendered a gut wrenching acoustic version of my personal favorite song, one he wrote for his ‘friend', "Jackie Brown". Already a brilliant tune, John's solo performance was highlighted by the accompaniment of his violinist as he led into the bridge. "Cherry Bomb" was delivered with humor as he told a tale of talking to a fan earlier in the day, and briefly sang a song the fan's daughter had taught him about a woodchuck. Another personal highlight was "Check It Out". Simple lighting was part of his scaled down production, but strings of lights twinkled across the top of the stage through several tunes, providing a rich accent that resembled stars in the sky. Watching my son sway, clap, and scream out the lyrics as loud as he could reasserted the point that Mellencamp's music is timeless and meaningful to all generations.
Finally, he launched into the classic tunes that had built him such a loyal following. "Jack and Diane", "Small Town" and the ever-poignant "Rain on the Scarecrow" rang out in rapid succession bringing everyone to their feet, even my son who was nodding off in my arms at this point. We listened to a few more tunes in the lobby as we exited, "Paper in Fire", "The Real Life", and "What if I Came Knocking". I wish we could have stayed until he played "Pink Houses", but alas it was not to be.
All in all, a beautiful night of classic Americana, delivered by one of the most prolific songwriters of the era; and a special night that I was able to share with my son and won't soon forget. I even splurged and spent $35 on a grey shirt with three "little pink houses" on the front, and a line across the back, "for you and me". Mellencamp's name wasn't even on the shirt; it doesn't need to be. He's made a name for himself doing what he loves best, playing great music and speaking from the heart.