John Mellencamp, even at age 67, is still kind of a punk.
Not a punk in the mohawk, slam-dancing, Sex Pistols way, but in the way old-timers used to eyeball a certain sort of long-haired, cigarette-smoking loudmouth and mutter "damn punk" at what he saw as a harbinger of society's collapse.
At his packed concert at Spokane's First Interstate Center for the Arts Saturday night, Mellencamp proved to still be the kind of guy who revels in stirring shit up. Whether it was calling the folks screaming during the show's quieter moments "motherf—-ers," or including point-blank political commentary in favor of Black Lives Matter (including taking a knee) and the working poor in his between-song banter and videos, Mellencamp still loves to fight authority, as one of his biggest hits says, and he comes out grinnin'.
So did the fans after an excellent show of roughly 20 songs delivered over nearly two hours after a 20-minute video introducing Mellencamp's personal philosophy as illustrated by painters, piano players and the like.
Adorned in a dark jumpsuit that would look at home on a Jiffy Lube mechanic, and surrounded by his stellar six-piece band, Mellencamp took the stage and immediately started to go back and forth between songs dissecting the hard times and confusion in the country and songs evoking the good old days. "Lawless Times" and "Troubled Land" made way for the damn near perfect "Minutes to Memories" from his Scarecrow album, followed by the first of his biggest hits to arrive, "Small Town."
Mellencamp has no problem evoking wistful nostalgia through stories about his grandmother's deathbed lessons and or tales about longtime band member Mike Wanchic's popularity with the ladies when Mellencamp was first touring back in the '70s. Of course, he did the same with songs like "Jack & Diane," this night delivered solo on acoustic guitar, with the audience all too happy to do most of the heavy lifting on vocals.
Mellencamp brings a theatrical flair to his shows, as does his band. "Easy Target" was borderline performance art as he delivered lines about vast sections of American society who are little more than what the title suggests, and his a cappella take on Louis Armstrong's "Long Gone (from the Bowlin' Green)" connected him and audience through a call-and-response section so well it made another appearance as he left the stage at the end of the night. His violinist Miriam Sturm was part-cheerleader, part-foil for her fellow instrumentalists, and guitarists Wanchic and Andy York traded tough guitar licks all evening, joined by Mellencamp on guitar as well when he wasn't dancing.
Of course, what most in attendance were there for were the monster hits, and Mellencamp has a lot of them. It's remarkable looking back at the '80s when Mellencamp's songs of struggling farmers ("Rain on the Scarecrow") and economic struggle ("Pink Houses") were huge pop hits played on Top 40 radio alongside Madonna or Michael Jackson. Judging by their continued potency Saturday, I'd certainly argue Mellencamp's songs aged better than "Like A Virgin" or "Beat It."
The show-closing rush of hits — "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song," "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bomb" — is one hell of a way to end a show.
John Mellencamp's Saturday setlist:
- Lawless Times
- Troubled Land
- Minutes to Memories
- Small Town
- Long Gone (from Bowlin' Green)
- Stones in My Passway
- We Are The People
- Lonely Ol' Night
- Check It Out
- Longest Days
- Jack & Diane
- Easy Target
- Rain on the Scarecrow
- Paper in Fire
- Crumblin' Down
- Authority Song/Land of 1,000 Dances
- Pink Houses
- Cherry Bomb
- Long Gone (from Bowlin' Green) reprise