John Mellencamp rocks and reflects on live set
Eagle Rock

John Mellencamp’s once dark-brown locks are graying at the temples, but he still has that trademark swoop spilling over his forehead. Occasionally he runs his hands through his hair, pushing it back into what resembles a combo pompadour and Wolverine (the X-Men films). 

Indiana’s favorite son may look older on the live CD / DVD Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre—out May 11 on Eagle Rock—but he sounds as good ever.  You know you’re in for a treat from the get-go.

Filmed and recorded during a stop in the windy city a couple years back (October 2016), the new concert set captures an icon who chronologically qualifies as over-the-hill, but whose steadfast, no-bullsh@t demeanor remains as dynamic as the day he started down this scenic musical road (as Johnny Cougar) some four decades ago.

“Stay ornery, John,” advised pal/peer Billy Joel while Mellencamp into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

“People need to hear a voice like yours to echo the discontent in the heartland. They need to hear stories about frustration, alienation, and desperation.”

Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre finds Mellencamp and his band telling those tales, distilling his distinct, gravel-voiced vignettes into simple-but-effective live arrangements that cut to the core of his socially-aware adages…whilst also entreating listeners’ shoes to shuffle and hips to shake.

Which is essentially what the self-described “Little Bastard” has been doing (and excelling at) ever since he dropped Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did in the late ‘70s.

Mellencamp’s latest studio effort, 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, only strengthens his legacy as the raconteur of America’s heartland.

The John Steinbeck award-winner (and recent Songwriter Hall of Fame nominee) is at his best when his tunes assess the human condition, review relationships between lovers and kin, or marvel at (or bemoan) the maturation process. Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre is a sixteen-song survey whereon the grease monkey-turned-grandpa goes back to basics, beguiling fans with fresh helpings of uppity Americana from the then-new Plain Spoken, served alongside roots-rock classics and hits from his ‘80s heyday.

The concert film is interspersed with voice-overs of John pondering his Midwest upbringing, working-class roots, family values, discipline (or lack thereof), and metamorphosis from chip-on-his-shoulder punk to pop star to a middle-class spokesman with perpetual bones to pick. The mid-song chatter can be deactivated at viewer’s discretion, leaving only the meat-and-potato performances—but the commentaries and confessionals do provide fascinating insight about the Seymour-bred songwriter and should be heard at least once.

“Now seventeen has turned thirty-five,” Mellencamp sang on 1987’s Lonesome Jubilee.  “I’m surprised we’re still living.”

“I didn’t want to be the next Neil Diamond,” recalls the Farm Aid co-founder of his start in the music business.

“I didn’t want to be the next anything!”

But Mellencamp’s first record label did, christening him Johnny Cougar. But executives there weren’t used to having their artists talk back and stand up for themselves.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do…but I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that’s half the battle.”

So Mellencamp took a girlfriend’s advice and modeled himself after a pair of comfortable old blue jeans, which can be dressed up or down depending on the situation.

Mellencamp says he was issued a switchblade in his first band—a multiracial group—to defend himself. He also dishes on overcoming spinal Bifida as an infant, his picket-line protestor mother and his bongo-drumming dad, his doting grandmother (who called him “Buddy”), first romances, social upheaval, and fighting (and forgiving) his stern father in a roadside diner. He reminisces hiding out in (and venturing out from) his hotel room in New York in the early ‘70s, then ditching NYC art school to chase his musical dreams. He reflects on his “obtuse start” in rock, writing early hits “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane,” Uh-Huh (over)exposure on MTV, his love of Woody Guthrie and Odetta, and his four-year stint as a heavy drinker with a very big mouth.

“These guys beat me up so bad I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror,” says John of the just desserts that steered him sober.

Mellencamp also shares trade secrets: He talks about the epiphany that prompted him to stop writing the hook-laden, critic-proof hits demanded by listeners (and labels) and concentrate instead on capturing thoughtful observations about people and places. Everyday encounters with average Joes and Janes became lyrical fodder for Mellencamp’s next musical numbers. He paid attention to detail and made himself to “available” to soak up the inspiration around him rather than overlook or ignore it.

“It’s all just material for a poem, a painting, a song,” he insists. “People think the songs are all about me, and they’re not.”

So he became a people-watcher. He noted their mannerisms, speech patterns, and fashion sense (or lack thereof). He became fascinated by others and silently stewed about them, wondering things like, “What’s this guy’s deal?” and “What kind of hustle is this person running?” Then he’d regurgitate it on paper—and on tape—in simple language and vague, easy-to-understand terms.

“You don’t want to be specific, because then it becomes exclusive to you. You say it so people can include themselves. Don’t hit it on the nose.”

Throughout the concert video, Mellencamp once again demonstrates that age really is just a number by staging a memorable Windy City show that has less to do with athletics and pyrotechnics than with recreating his engaging, insightful tunes with his talented black-suited band. No bells and whistles, no laser lights. Just a Gibson ES-335 guitar and Fender Telecaster, the crisp chords underpinned by a crack rhythm section and decorated with fiddle strains and accordion squeezes.

And—of course—Mellencamp’s cigarette-singed voice.

The first half of the video finds John and crew marching through selections from his then-new Republic Records album Plain Spoken.  The verses of cowboy-romp openers “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man” encapsulate modern societal frustrations (police brutality, economic hardship), but benefit from Mellencamp’s passionate vocals and stabbing guitar strums.  “Isolation of Mister” was another new gem.

But Seymour singer also peppers the proceedings with familiar entries like “Minutes to Memories,” “Pop Singer,” and “Small Town.”

Guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic juggle slide, lead, and rhythm duties on their elegant, big-bodied Gibsons and other instruments (no Flying-V’s here, thanks), allowing John to rest his Tele and focus on singing the whimsical “Check It Out” and smoky, lounge-like “Full Catastrophe.”  Fiddle player Mirium Sturm’s bowing adds a country flair and Zydeco flourish, and occasionally she counters keyboardist Troye Kinnett’s keyboards. At the halfway mark the duo offers an instrumental medley that incorporates bits of early Mellencamp songs like “I Need a Lover.”

Drummer Dave Clark throttles a smaller-scale auxiliary set for the more stripped-down rock numbers, using sticks and brushes to make his snare and toms resonate.  John E. Gee thumps rhythms on an electric bass, but he too switches things up by moving to a rumbling upright bass.

Most of the band quit the stage for “Stones in My Passway,” leaving John to belt the bluesy Robert Johnson classic all by his lonesome, accompanied only by Kinnett’s bluesy piano.  He and York pick acoustics on “Longest Days” (from 2008’s Life, Death, Love & Freedom), pondering things mortal and mundane. 

Opener Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash) joins in on “My Soul’s Got Wings” (which appears on the new Sad Clowns album).

It’s familiar territory from then on: The lyrics to “Rain on the Scarecrow” (about farmers beholden to bankers) still sting, “Paper in Fire” still sizzles, and “Authority Song” still cooks—and it’s not mere nostalgia fanning the flames. Mellencamp’s memorable, middle-fingered melodies and you ain’t the boss of me attitude truly shine, and his rebel streak shimmers brightest on captivating closers “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb.”   

Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky Mellencamp has successfully thwarted a life of submission and complacency, still heading up the annual Farm Aid benefit with Willie Nelson and Neil Young between solo albums and tours.  The radio hits may have slowed to a trickle in the Nineties—with Van Morrison cover “Wild Night” and “Key West Intermezzo” among his latter-day singles—but Mellencamp’s music took on a deeper meaning in the new millennium as he explored his small-town sensibility. And nowhere is that Pete Seeger-like sentiment on display more brilliantly than Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre.

“Art is about what someone else’s imagination does to your imagination,” posits Mellencamp (who dabbles in acrylic painting in his spare time). “You can’t edit yourself and be an artist.”