Sunday, March 29, 2015

Saw John Mellencamp Tonight

For anyone that follows their favorite singer, you always know their tour schedule. While John Mellencamp isn't one of my favorites (I do love a handful of his songs), my husband likes him and has always wanted to see him but I knew that JCM isn't doing the big tours like he used to, instead favoring the smaller venues. He performed at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, and the sound there was AMAZING.

For comparison’s sake: the Virginia Beach Amphitheater seats 20,000; the Ntelos Pavilion in Portsmouth seats 7,500; Chrysler Hall seats 2,500; the NorVa in Norfolk seats 1,450; and the Funny Bone in Virginia Beach seats 350.

Chrysler Hall is very particular about people doing any kind of recording or photography during any performance there, so I didn't risk it by taking any pictures, even with us being in the balcony. Fortunately, not everyone was as careful.

The opening act was Carlene Carter, daughter to June Carter-Cash. I’m not a country fan anyway, so it was hard to listen to this chick sing. She is SUPER twangy (think about the stereotypical female country singer, with a southwestern Virginia accent!) and she sang two or three separate songs about her mother’s passing in 2003 and how hard Johnny Cash took it. Ewwwwwww, I’m not in a place yet where the topic of dying mothers is entertaining, and it seems a little distasteful in a “I’m milking my family for all it’s worth!” kind of way. I did have to wonder how she got paired up with JCM for his “Plain Spoken” tour. Usually, the pairings make sense. This one didn’t to me, at least, not right away.

Anyway, she sang maybe 5-7 songs and then JCM came out. He always reminded me of  the “everyman” kind of performer: folksy, down to earth, speaks for the common man, and I think that’s why my husband likes him. However, as I was watching him, I watched how he held his guitar and how he was dressed. He was in an almost black suit with a vest and white shirt on underneath. He looked and moved a little like Johnny Cash. He has gone from rocker to the modern Man in Black, and that was the tie in with him and Carlene Carter, Johnny Cash’s step-daughter. Clay Barbour, a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, wrote, “John Mellencamp has always operated in the realm of Americana with a roots-tinged blend of rock and country, but his music hasn't stayed the same. In a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, the one-time John Cougar Mellencamp (and Johnny Cougar) has explored sounds from soul to the Stones to Springsteen.”

He started out performing the newer stuff, which strikes me as anti-establishment, to a degree, and it was alright. Nothing to write home about. Then he slowly transitioned into some older songs. “Though 63, Mellencamp remains creatively restless. He plays Chrysler Hall in Norfolk Sunday, supporting his 22nd studio album, "Plain Spoken," a rough-hewn record of pained lyrics and understated guitar. Mellencamp is a fascinating musician, a heartland hero more comfortable as an outsider,” Barbour said in his review.” I thought that was the best way to describe him.

Lawless Times
Toubled Man
Minutes to Memories
Stones in my Passway
Human Wheels
The Isolation of Mister
Check It Out
Longest Days
Jack and Diane
The Full Catastrophe

But then after these songs, JCM stepped off stage and let his other musicians perform for a song themselves. When they were done, he came back on stage, the jacket was gone, and the vest and white t-shirt were showing. The audience went nuts and this became a different show altogether. This became JCM as a down and dirty rocker, classic, vintage stuff we all heard on the radio growing up.

Away From This World—with Carlene Carter*
Tear This Cabin Down—with Carlene Carter*
Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper in Fire
If I Die Sudden
Crumblin Down
Authority Song/Land of 1000 Dances
Pink Houses
Cherry Bomb

Hearing him perform “Crumblin Down” and the “Authority Songs” were the highlights for me. Those to me are the best things he’s ever done and I sing to those any time I hear them (provided I’m along and no one can hear me!).

*Fun note to mention: both of these songs are from “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a musical he wrote with Stephen King. Even though it came out in 2013, JCM said they started working on it 15 years ago and it’s still in a stage of being worked on.

Of Barbour’s review, I didn't agree with this: “And at an age when some artists use their bands to hide diminished vocal range, Mellencamp employs a bare-boned sound that leaves his nicotine-stained cords center stage.” JCM does sound pretty rough on the newest CD, but that doesn’t seem to carry over into his live performances, and he even broke out a cigarette during one of his songs. Instead, when live, he sounds like someone who might be aging naturally with a few cigarettes thrown in. But let’s be honest, how many singers, even if they take care of their voices, sound the same at 63 as they did at 23? Even Billy Joel sounds a touch different, but still recognizable and still great.

And he had five other musicians on stage with them for about 75% of the show. He wasn’t hiding behind their music. If anything, he showed them off as well. He had a violinist on stage with him, named Miriam Sturm. She was dressed in a black or navy blue ball gown and barefoot (apparently) and she was the breakdown star of the show. She was animated and having a good time. Watching her play her violin was like watching a precisely tuned machine, and her entire right arm (with the bow) looked like it was all pivoted. It was just so interesting to watch her, and there was a few times while performing older songs, her violin performance replaced the original female back up singing.

The only true let down of the show: no encore! My husband and I were expecting 1 or 2 more songs, possibly “Hurts So Good,” or some other classic. But no…no encore tonight.

If you get the chance to see JCM perform, definitely try to go. It was a better show than I imagined, and he’s not someone I would have gone to see if my husband had been gone.