There is something deeply unsettling about standing in a crowd of 2,000 middle-aged human beings all joyously singing the lyric, Life goes on / long after the thrill of living is gone.
I am a product of Catholic schooling in the Midwest. The idea that life is something we are here to suffer through -- like how Jesus suffered, on the cross! -- is hardly foreign to me. I went to a wedding last week where the centerpiece of the church was a gigantic painting of a bloody, dying Jesus. A wedding
! But even I have a difficult time fathoming why a bunch of olds would be so drawn to "Jack and Diane," a song whose thesis is essentially that life is terrible after your teenage years. Hold onto 16 as long as you can
? Really? Was it that great? I'm way happier at 28 than I was at 16. But then again, I don't buy into Mellencamp's false, defeatist nostalgia. I'm guessing a lot of the guys I know who graduated college and promptly took boring jobs and got bullied into marriage probably have a copy of American Fool
in a box somewhere in the basement.
Oh, but of course I am being pretend-surprised about all this. I know exactly what people like about "Jack and Diane," and by extension Mellencamp: catchiness, folksiness, and most of all that warm, sad nostalgia. He's made a career of it. His music is meaningful to millions of people; and so, let us approach John Mellencamp's show at the Midland with open hearts and minds.
Mellencamp's latest album, No Better Than This, was recorded on mono at various legendary American music sites: Sun Studios in Memphis and the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson recorded among them. He's trying out a variation of what Bob Dylan's been up to for the past decade: age gracefully by embracing the roots of rock and roll -- folk, rockabilly, blues. Instead of going for the Sprint Center cash-grab, he's communicating this new aesthetic by playing more intimate venues like the Midland, where he took the stage on Friday with a band that included an upright bass, an accordion and a violin.
I applaud this. I'd rather see him play new front-porch alt-country tunes than barrel through his catalog of depressing songs about struggling in the Heartland. Clearly, though, I'm in the minority there -- or at least, that's what it felt like on Friday. A representative example: halfway through the set, the band left the stage and Mellencamp did some solo acoustic songs. One of those, No Better leadoff track "Save Some Time To Dream," he introduced by recounting a story about how it was inspired by something his father once told him. It wasn't necessarily my cup of tea, but it was a tender, heartfelt song and throughout the entire thing the asshole standing next to me -- who was wearing one of those sweater-windbreaker v-neck things that everybody's dad started wearing ten years ago -- was bullshitting with his other asshole friend about golf clubs. After the song, Mellencamp sang a verse -- just a verse -- of "Cherry Bomb," the entire crowd in the front rose from their seats like they'd seen a rat, and the two assholes raised their Bud Lights and cheered.
But can you realistically expect otherwise? People who pay $100 for a ticket want to hear the hits. Mellencamp handled this by giving them the hits, though not necessarily the way they hear them on 101 The Fox. He opened with a modest "Authority Song," notably pared down and lacking its trademark circular electric guitar riff. The aforementioned "Jack and Diane" was given more of a country bounce. "Jackie Brown," performed solo in the dark, was downright mournful -- appropriate, given its bleak subject matter.
Mellencamp was clearly most excited about the newer material. He did some corny bluesman dance moves, facing the drummer and shaking his ass at the audience and snapping his fingers. The crowd ate it up. He extended "Death Letter," from 2003's Trouble No More, into a long-ass blues jam. At times, his voice veered into a Tom Waits craggle; at other points, he sounded not so different than when he was the Cougar. He closed out the night by giving the folks what they paid for: "Pink Houses" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." No encore.
All things considered, it was a professional, eclectic, well-executed show. But after over two hours, I was ready to get the hell out of there. I walked over to the Studded Bird to meet some friends and see some bands. We drank beers, had some laughs, talked about movies, bounced along to the music. The thrill of living was right there, in the present. Who gives a fuck about the past?
Critical Bias: I think that first paragraph pretty well sums up my biases.
Random Detail: A 50-year-old woman approached me at the bar. She ran her finger along the sleeve of my jacket and told me I looked like a movie star. I, uh, don't look like a movie star. But thank you, 50-year-old woman, for that very nice compliment, which I will live off of for a few weeks!
Also: A screening of a movie about the making of Mellencamp's new record preceded the show. I didn't make it in time. Anybody know if it was any good?
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.