Little ditty about John and his fans… A sold-out venue of John’s fans, in fact. Last Saturday, Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) hosted John Mellencamp, and while there was no rushing about like there normally is at some concerts, people seemed carefree and elated.
DPAC is known for its Broadway shows and high-profile concerts, and while the attire was not regal, the atmosphere most definitely was. Merch booths were minimal, but the display of Mellencamp’s own artwork being sold was impressive and inspiring.
In lieu of an opener, Mellencamp, who is partnering with Turner Classic Movies for his Live and In Person 2023 Tour, played a barrage of movie clips romanticizing the cinematic charms of Marlon Brando, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, James Dean, and Henry Fonda.
Mellencamp said songs and music are the only two things that can take you back to a point in time. He’s not wrong. Small clips of classic films from the 1940s to mid-1970s such as “The Misfits,” “Giant,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “The Grapes of Wrath” played over the quiet theatre; not something you’d normally expect at a concert, but then again, Mellencamp isn’t your normal musician – he’s a storyteller and an artist. He has purpose, values, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind about the America he’s grown to love, understand, and at times be ashamed of.
The stage, adorned with mannequins depicting the characters in classic films, aided to the theme of the evening and provided a charming, cinematic aesthetic. Mellencamp started his set with “John Cockers,” “Paper in Fire,” and “Minutes to Memories.” Aside from a couple of people standing and dancing in the aisle, living their best life, the majority of the audience was still sitting swaying and singing along to the chorus. “Small Town” got the entire audience on their feet and riled up.
It wasn’t until around the fifth song of the evening that Mellencamp addressed the crowd. He said he came from Bloomington, Indiana and was here to play some songs the audience knows, some we don’t know, some we can dance to, some we can sing along to, and some that will hopefully make us think. He said the purpose of the evening was to create a nice musical community and to have fun.
When “Jack & Diane” started playing, the crowd belted out the lyrics, leaving Mellencamp to keep everyone in sync, and to “chastise” us a bit for skipping the second verse; one he says took him a long time to write. By the end though, we were good enough to join the band.
During the concert, Mellencamp told stories about a homeless girl he met in Oregon and his interaction with her. He spoke about how he helped her out and how it inspired him to later write “The Eyes of Portland.” He told a funny story about his grandmother and the lessons she taught him in life. The manner in which he spoke was so heartfelt, if the crowd wasn’t already captivated with him, they certainly were after that.
Mellencamp spoke about Joanne Woodward and how, before she stopped being able to speak, she would read his songs as a poem or story, and he shared her recorded reciting of “The Real Life.” With live musical accompaniment from Lisa Germano on violin, and Troye Kinnett on keyboards and accordion, the recording sounded almost like a story you’d hear being told in a Southern film such as “Fried Green Tomatoes.” It was captivating the way she drawled out her words and spoke in such a Southern fashion.
Lisa Germano stole the show a lot. Her violin skills are spectacular and it really adds to all of Mellencamp’s written lyrics and the overall sound. With Mellencamp’s smoke filled lungs and raspier voice than his younger years, the backup vocals of guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York allow Mellencamp to take breaks, though he really didn’t need to. We can’t forget about John Gunnell on bass, who was a crowd favorite, and Dane Clark who kept things perfectly timed on drums.
The concert ended with some of his most famous and enjoyable songs, “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Hurts So Good.” Mellencamp was true to his vision for the night’s performance; it was indeed a performance and not your typical concert. It was thought provoking, it was entertaining, and it was a reminder that “life is short even on its longest days.”
The boldness that Mellencamp envisioned and executed with this tour only showcases his level of creativity and his passion to do more than sing to an audience. His music has purpose. You can catch Mellencamp at a small town (ok maybe not that small) near you soon.