Concert Review | John Mellencamp 

click to enlarge John Mellencamp, center, and his band perform at West Herr Auditorium Theatre on March 8, 2024.

PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER

John Mellencamp, center, and his band perform at West Herr Auditorium Theatre on March 8, 2024.

John Mellencamp is a rock ‘n’ roller whose musical identity as a voice of the American  heartland looms larger than any one song he’s written — which says a lot about the man responsible for “Jack and Diane” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." On Friday, the Grammy-nominated artist brought a song catalog spanning more than 40 years to an eager audience at the West Herr Auditorium Theatre.

Rather than have an opening band serve as the supporting act, Mellencamp showed 24 minutes of excerpts from classic black-and-white films featuring legendary actors such as Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor.

Key phrases in the movie dialogue gave insight into Mellencamp’s M.O. — “Nothing can live unless something else dies,” Clark Gable says to Monroe in 1961’s “The Misfits.” In 1963's “Hud," Paul Newman is scolded, “You live just for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with.” In 1940's “The Grapes of Wrath," Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad says, “ A woman can change better’n a man. A man lives sorta — well, in jerks.”

It was an unconventional way to start a rock show, but a fitting one (particularly as concertgoers continued to file into the hall after 8 p.m.) — but there were murmurs of impatience among the crowd as snippets from each successive film were introduced. “I have Netflix,” one woman declared.

Eventually, the film screening stopped and red sirens on the stage and at the soundboard went off, signaling Mellencamp and his six-piece backing band were beginning their set.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER

The musical portion of the evening began with the blues-rock swagger of “John Cockers,” which repeats a phrase that resonates in the post-pandemic era: “I know many many people, but I ain’t got no friends.”

Mellencamp’s voice has always been a blend of smooth and scraggly. Now in his 70s, the singer-songwriter’s tone has a bit more gravel, but it only adds to his authenticity.

Early on in the set, Mellencamp and company turned to 1985 favorite “Small Town,” which was received by the crowd like it was the finale. The line “I can breathe in a small town” bore special energy as it fell on the ears of the Rochesterians assembled.

But the best songs of the night were the lesser hits. Among them, a rousing version of “Paper in Fire” from 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee,” and the 1989 “Big “Daddy” track “Jackie Brown,” a kind of fast ballad and concise story-song that sounds like a musical version of flash fiction. A solo acoustic performance-turned-singalong of “Jack and Diane” was a crowd pleaser, but it would have been more impactful with backing from the full band.

Mellencamp’s banter — which included the inspiration for recent song “The Eyes of Portland” and a charming story about heart-to-heart chats with his grandmother — was endearing. But a smattering of fans were noticeably less interested in the “common man” schtick between songs than the music itself — so much so that a yell of “come on!” was audible over a somewhat talkative crowd. That response seemed incomprehensible, as did the actions of one (clearly buzzed) man who removed his shirt and promptly threw it into the air several rows in front of him.

“Ain’t That America,” indeed.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
  • PHOTO BY DANIEL J. KUSHNER
Mellencamp’s music truly is for the everyman, a kind of pop-country for the Springsteen set. Even with a grit that can, at times, feel like superficial gloss, the blue collar troubadour delivers songs that are structurally polished and harmonically straightforward.

A cover of van Morrison’s “Gloria” and the closer “Hurts So Good” rounded out a strong performance from Mellencamp and his affable band of accomplices. At one point, the frontman gave the audience a bit of advice it seemed to be taking to heart in real time: “Live it up and don’t give so many fucks.”

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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