CONCERT REVIEW: Anything but ‘Plain,’ John Mellencamp captivates sold-out Wilkes-Barre crowd
From the moment he strolled out on stage with his Fender Telecaster until the final notes of his last song 95 minutes later, John Mellencamp had the sold-out crowd at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre on Friday, Oct. 14 in the palm of his hand.
Sometimes they sang along, sometimes they danced, sometimes they just sat and listened intently to his words at the second show of the seventh and final leg of the “Plain Spoken” tour.
The tour may be named after his latest album from 2014, but the show felt more like a career retrospective as the now 65-year-old singer/songwriter played songs dating back to his commercial breakthrough as John Cougar in 1982.
Opening with “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” two of the standouts from “Plain Spoken,” Mellencamp and his stellar six-piece band moved directly from the new material to “Minutes to Memories” from what many consider the Indiana native’s best album, 1985’s “Scarecrow.”
Still without addressing the audience, Mellencamp then played one of his biggest hits, “Small Town” (also from “Scarecrow”), which had the capacity crowd on its feet and singing along heartily.
“Thank you very much, I’m John Mellencamp,” he finally said after the fourth number. “We’re going to play a whole lot of songs tonight – some you know, some you don’t know, some you can dance to, some you can sing along with.”
Now backed solely by drummer Dane Clark, upright bassist John Gunnell, and slide guitarist Andy York, Mellencamp did a riveting version of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” (recorded for “Trouble No More” in 2003), wailing away and dancing like a man half his age.
Next up was a somewhat harder arrangement of the 1989 single “Pop Singer,” with Mellencamp taking delight in stressing the words, “Never wanted to be a pop singer/Never wanted to write no pop songs.”
After “The Isolation of Mister” from “Plain Spoken” and the Top 15 hit “Check It Out” from 1988, Mellencamp told a fascinating and somewhat amusing story about his 100-year-old grandmother and her dying words to her grandson.
“Life is short, even in its longest days,” she told him, which he incorporated into his song “Longest Days” from 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.” The audience at the Kirby Center sat silently, soaking in each word.
The show, like all others on the “Plain Spoken” tour, was opened by Carlene Carter, who unfortunately was nursing a sore throat on this night.
“It don’t hurt y’all,” she reassured the crowd, “It just sounds like shit.”
Despite her ailment, she made it through seven songs, including her 1993 No. 3 country hit “Every Little Thing” and “Easy From Now On,” which Emmylou Harris recorded in 1978, naming her album “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town” from a line in the song.
Carter, who is the granddaughter of “Mother” Maybelle Carter and the daughter of June Carter Cash, embraced her heritage with 2014’s “Carter Girl” album, from which she featured “Little Black Train,” “Black Jack David” (which she recorded as a duet with Kris Kristofferson), and “Lonesome Valley 2003,” an update of a song by her great uncle A.P. Carter, which now talks about the deaths of her mother and stepfather Johnny Cash.
After attempting a high note, she changed songs to one she wrote for her stepfather, “It Takes One to Know Me,” played a bit of another, and then told the audience she was supposed to sing with Mellencamp later in the show and wanted to save her voice.
Carter was able to make it to the stage to sing the gospel-flavored “My Soul’s Got Wings,” which the duo will release in February on the album “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.”
After a solo acoustic performance of “Jack & Diane,” during which he good naturedly chastised the audience for skipping the second verse in the massive singalong, Mellencamp finished up his show, rattling off one hit after another.
First came “Rain on the Scarecrow” from 1986, then “Paper in Fire” from 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee,” then “Crumblin’ Down,” “Authority Song” (which incorporated a bit of “Land of 1,000 Dances”), and “Pink Houses” from 1983’s “Uh-Huh,” the latter tune featuring a magnificent, melancholy fiddle solo by Miriam Sturm.
After introducing his band, including guitarist Mike Wanchic, who has backed him for over 40 years, Mellencamp told the crowd that the only problem with talking about the old times is you have to be old to do it.
With that, he brought the show to a close with “Cherry Bomb,” his song about looking back that still sounds as good today as it did when he wrote it 30 years ago.
Photos by Jason Riedmiller Photography