Monday, April 15, 2024

John Mellencamp: An Honest Man’s Pillow is His Peace of Mind

St. Patrick’s Day, 2024 will be spent in rejoice for about 2,400 Glass City citizens as, after soaking up their weekend bellyful of hops with the obligatory jiggs dinner, they’ll converge upon the Stranahan Theater March 17 to witness John Mellencamp and his band take the stage for a revelatory set covering the master songwriter’s now six-decade, Hall of Fame career.

The set we are to anticipate is in the midst of a rejuvenated tour. Having played 80 shows after the release of last year’s Orpheus Descending, the band geared up for a stretch of tour dates across the East Coast, now tipping the nose of its tour bus into the Midwest.

“After we played those shows last year, we didn’t know if we’d continue in support of the album, but here we are. We’re always ready and excited to breathe life into these songs,” Mike Wanchic, lead guitarist and co-producer who has collaborated with Mellencamp since they met in Bloomington, Indiana nearly 50 years ago, said. 

Or as he put it, “Since he was trying to cut that first demo to send to New York, covering Roy Orbison and the like. It was wildly energetic, almost primitive. John has not lost any of that energy.”

That primitive sound oozes its way into the aforementioned Orpheus Descending and its predecessor, 2021’s Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, revealing in Mellencamp a rugged, roughshod, yet ethereal voice – sometimes dipping into Tom Waits territory, much to the former’s compliment. That voice, in cohesion with his lyrics, stand steadfast in his grasp on the human condition, even as his Autumn years unfurl and his band stomps the terra.

“His songwriting has definitely matured and developed a deeper tapestry from the early recordings,” Wanchic said. “There’s a maternal brotherhood between him and the band. There’s a trust, like an old married couple. Like we got nothing to lose.”

Mellencamp’s road dog vocals are backed ever so lovingly by a fine–tuned band who could match each other’s movements even if they were blindfolded. It does help when you have long-time confidants such as Andy York on guitar and the ace–in–the–hole Lisa Germano on violin; her first recordings with Mellencamp since the perfect punch that is 1993’s Human Wheels

“Even after 20 years, some of the guys are still auditioning,” Wanchic chuckled over the phone, “The sound of Orpheus and One-Eyed Jack was agreed upon that less production felt appropriate,” he said, “It goes back to that primitive idea of ‘play fast and make mistakes.’ Where the flaw is the beauty. Where we let the spare instruments speak for themselves and let the players feel their way through the songs.”

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That attitude of allowing the pieces to fall into their natural place transfers to the set design of the show, which should be a real treat for concert–goers, especially those endeared to classic American cinema, yours truly included.

“The design of the set is all John’s vision. For the first time since we ever started touring, we have a sponsor, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. Our ‘opening act’ is a collage of classic movie clips that John grew up with, such as Hud (1963) with Paul Newman,” said Wanchic, “We actually open our set on one of the last shots of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), as Blanche (Dubois) walks into the distance declaring ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Then the curtain rises and there we are on stage.”

Where even a passive fan may expect the toe–tapping stadium anthems about chili dogs and cherry bombs – of which I’m sure will be on the setlist, just maybe not in their expected rendition – one should expect an eclectic take on the classic tracks.   

“There’s that great balance of the audience’s expectation: songs like ‘Small Town’, your ‘Cherry Bomb’ type songs that we know hold great significance to the audiences’ lives, songs that have affected their lives. The songs we know the audience wants to hear,” Wanchic said. “And then there’s the rotation of songs that mean a lot to us as a band, those little keepers that we want to have in our back pocket; those songs that mean something to us now. It’s a tough balance but it’s always worth the effort.”

JOHN MELLENCAMP LIVE AND IN PERSON 2024: SUNDAY, MARCH 17. Show: 8pm // Doors: 7pm. Tickets $49.50 to $304. Visit Stranahan Theater for more details.

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