There are certain words that I promised myself that I would not use in this review. “Anthemic,” for example. Or “rural rock.” Or “heartland,” or “heartfelt,” or “heart”-anything for that matter.
Why? Because these are terms that have been attached to John Mellencamp ever since those early days of MTV, back when Johnny Cougar boogied down with bar bikers in the original “Hurts So Good” video.
That was then. But now and a few Farm Aids, a couple three wives, a stint as a Serious Painter, and some twenty-odd albums later, the ancient adjectives no longer seem to cut it.
No, John Mellencamp never “became president,” a disappointment alluded to in “Pink Houses,” but he did play for one, once – who called him “magnificent.”
As he was last Saturday night at The Mark. It was a show filled with fire and fury. A full-bore exercise in vital, sweaty, teeth-jarring, viscera-shaking rock and bloody roll.
Opening with an obscure raver called “L.U.V.” that had longtime guitarist Andy York shredding power chords into glass shards, the band segued immediately into “Jack & Diane” without missing a single Bo Diddley beat. Yep, that’s right. The tender coming-of-age ballad from 1982’s American Fool grew up to be bigger than Godzilla and twice as nasty. Yet the ever-so-tight band – including Mellencamp long-timer Mike Wanchic on guitar, Miriam Sturm on violin, and Dane Clark on drums – turned easily on a dime to accommodate the quieter passages of the song.
The rest of the evening was a theatre of song and dance, sonic bombardment contrasted with gentle emotion as old songs mingled with new. The iridescent “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw Her First)” from 1996’s Mr. Happy Go Lucky waltzed smack into the earth-pounding “Crumbling Down.”
Halfway through, things settled down to an acoustic set as most of the band stepped to the fore of the stage. Towering over these proceedings was a slide projection of a battered Old Glory illuminated by a quote from Albert Einstein – “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war” – giving an eerie, reverential poignancy to “Small Town” and Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” the latter featuring York on dobro.
But then it was time for more blood and thunder. Chestnuts such as “Hurts So Good” brought the lighters out, and “R.O.C.K. in the USA” had Mellencamp doing the pony, the swim, and the frug with backing vocalists Courtney Kaiser and Pat Peterson, causing a boyfriend-riding member of the audience to lose her shirt.
All this finally culminated in the penultimate piece of the evening, the classic “Pink Houses” from 1983’s Uh-Huh (with able assistance from the opening act, the lovely and talented Alice Peacock), and a faux encore with “Cherry Bomb,” an anthemic, heartfelt, rural-rock paean to growing up in the heartland.
Damn … well, I guess ya had to be there.