Home Live Review Live Review: John Mellencamp @ DAR Constitution Hall — 4/18/24

Live Review: John Mellencamp @ DAR Constitution Hall — 4/18/24

Live Review: John Mellencamp @ DAR Constitution Hall — 4/18/24
John Mellencamp performs at DAR Constitution Hall on April 18, 2024. (Photo by James Todd Miller)

In a recent brilliant show at DAR Constitution Hall, Indiana native John Mellencamp delivered a perfect mix of pile-driving rock, tender moments, and social conscience. This dynamite performance showed why Mellencamp was and continues to be incredibly popular: He’s a fantastic performer with excellent songs.

“We’re going to play all kinds of music tonight,” John told the crowd at DAR Constitution Hall on April 18. “We’re going to play songs you know, songs you don’t know, songs you can sing along to, and songs you can dance to.” The show opened with a series of clips from classic, black-and-white American films: The Fugitive Kind, Hud, Giant, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Grapes of Wrath. These clips contextualized Mellencamp’s heartland rock as continuous with the Great American Story, with tales of struggle in middle America. After the clip show ended, the screen went up and Mellencamp and his band launched into “John Cockers.”

Mellencamp has been doing this a long time, recording since the late ’70s. He noted that one of his band members has been with him for 50 years. He broke through with American Fool in 1981 and hit his stride with a trilogy of albums in the decade’s middle years: Uh-huhScarecrow, and The Lonesome Jubilee. John had no problem treating the crowd to his biggest hits. The opening notes of “Small Town” had the crowd on their feet and singing along, and “Check It Out” had them cheering. “Jack & Diane” came during a lower-key part of the evening, with no percussion, just acoustic guitar, accordion, and violin.

Midway through the set, the band left the stage, and John came to the mic with an acoustic guitar. “One of the great parts of my job,” he said, “is you get to travel all over the world.” Sadly, in this country, “there are homeless everywhere.” When he was in Portland, he encountered a homeless woman he described as manic. “I just need some money to get home,” she told him, adding, “they don’t want me at home, because I’m too much trouble.” When John offered to give her some money to get home, she asked him, “Do I have to have sex with you?” Mellencamp posed the question, “How sad is that, that she thought she had to give up her body for a little kindness?”

This experience inspired the song “The Eyes of Portland,” which appears on his latest album, Orpheus Descending, released earlier this year. Notably, the album marked the return of his violinist from the late ’80s and early ’90s, Lisa Germano.

Watch the official lyric video for “The Eyes of Portland” by John Mellencamp on YouTube:

Lisa addressed the crowd to introduce something a little different, a recorded spoken-word recitation of “The Real Life” by actress Joanne Woodward, wife of the late Paul Newman. Germano told the audience that, sadly, Woodward has Alzheimer’s and hasn’t been able to speak for several years.

This quieter portion of the evening also included “Longest Days,” played on just guitar and accordion. The accents of accordion, violin, and harmonica throughout the evening, along with organ here and there, added lovely, rootsy touches that complimented the hard, vigorous rocking of Mellencamp’s band. The sound was perfectly balanced between punch-you-in-the-face, loud, powerful, hard rock and accents of beauty and grace. And even when Mellencamp rocks hard, the songs always have substance.

After “John Cockers,” the set continued with “Paper In Fire” and “Minutes to Memories.” “Small Town” was followed by “Human Wheels,” “Jackie Brown,” and “Troubled Land.” Mellencamp and his band came out of the acoustic portion of the evening with my favorite song of his, “Rain on the Scarecrow,” followed by “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “What If Came Knocking,” and “Crumblin Down.”

During the back half of the evening, John talked a bit about his grandmother, who lived to be 100 years old. He told the audience she always called him “Buddy, never John.” When she was getting ready to pass — at the time he was 40 — she told him, “Buddy, you’re not going to get heaven if you keep cussing and smoking.” She asked him to pray with her, and described how she began speaking in tongues, then came back to English to finish the prayer. “Me and Buddy are ready to come home,” she said, to which John’s mental response was, “What the fuck! I’m not ready to go yet!”

Mellencamp didn’t shy away from nostalgia, and, after a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Pink Houses,” he talked about how living to be old — he’s in his 70s now — gives some gravitas to his songs about old times. (It doesn’t hurt that his voice has aged into a gravelly rasp, almost a Midwestern version of Tom Waits.) His son, who’s 30, will ask him if he remembers something, and it’s only two years ago. “I’ve taken naps longer than two years,” he mused.

“Here’s a song about old times,” he said, introducing “Cherry Bomb.”

Watch the official music video for “Cherry Bomb” by John Mellencamp on YouTube:

After “Cherry Bomb,” John and his band came back for their encore, playing “Hurts So Good” to end the show on a high note. This was my first time seeing Mellencamp, and it was a night to remember, one of the best shows I’ve seen in some time. What he does is really quite impressive: he manages to entertain people with anthemic rock songs while saying important, meaningful things about our world. That’s not easy to do: it’s hard not to veer too far into the direction of just pleasing the audience, or going in the opposite direction and getting preachy. Mellencamp steers the middle path, and this show demonstrated that, finding the balance between earth-shaking rock & roll and thoughtful moments.

Here are some photos of John Mellencamp performing at DAR Constitution Hall on April 18, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of James Todd Miller.



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