John Mellencamp is something of a Midwestern shaman or spiritual leader. At Friday night’s all-John Mellencamp show (featuring John Mellencamp and band), he came across as vital and thoughtful while performing for a crowd that skewed heavily toward the 30s, at least on the lower level.
Mellencamp’s tour in support of a covers album has an air of sure, why not, and debuted Thursday in his home state of Indiana. He came rolling into Milwaukee with the ethanol-scented wind at his back.
Let’s talk about John Mellencamp’s forehead. There’s optimism in this forehead, audacity, hope, vulnerability and bravado. In earlier times, when he went by Johnny Cougar, he had long, dark, curly hair hanging over it, covering the expanse. Now it’s a billboard: Mellencamp. It could be no one else.
During Friday’s show, he wore a workman’s jumper, and unlike other bands that try to make jumpers culty or referential, Mellencamp was really talking about the working man and woman. “I believe in a living wage,” he yelled at one point.
There’s always been a part of Mellencamp that wants to be more like Bob Dylan and other untouchable songwriters, but he’s generally stayed wise enough to remain humble. On Friday, he covered “Stones in My Passway” by delta blues granddaddy Robert Johnson (not about kidney stones, although it probably could be), a dark and defeated song. It stood in contrast with lively Mellencamp standards like “Small Town” and “Jack and Diane.”
Does that sort of place still exist in the Midwest, or did it ever? Mellencamp is from Seymour, Ind., where the video from “Small Town” was filmed, featuring a young Johnny with the floppy hair. It’s a big railroad town with somewhere short of 20,000 people, putting it roughly in the range where just about anyone with enough gumption and a good pair of walking shoes can get elected mayor. Well, little Johnny went on to become one of the most successful solo acts of all time, so much so his hits are easy to lose track of and confuse with other artists (looking at you, “Hurt So Good”).
Mellencamp’s not always at his best when he’s topical, and few artists are. Dylan later retreated from his own protest songs, calling them “finger pointing” songs.
The Tom Waits-ish “Easy Target,” told from the perspective of a cop getting ready to shoot a vulnerable target, is a jangly retelling of our national predicament, which the song makes clear. Mellencamp took a knee after singing, in case the audience didn’t get the message. A noble effort, but transparency rarely lifts a song.
The Mellencamp you heard on the radio growing up, or later in life, is still out there, which is a comfort. Throughout much of February, he’s playing a mini-tour of the Midwest, and on April 13, he returns to Wisconsin and the Weidner Center in Green Bay.