John Mellencamp Comes to Eastman Theater

I’m not really a bucket list kind of person, but there is a list of musicians that I hope to see before my concert-going days are over. Whenever one of these musicians happens to be from the list of hit makers from my high school days, there’s always a bit of apprehension when I click the ‘Buy Tickets’ button for one of his or her concerts. We all know that time is not always kind. Will they sound the same, or worst yet, will they still try to dress the same?

A couple months ago, I heard that John Mellencamp was bringing his Plain Spoken tour to Rochester, NY’s historic Eastman Theater. I’ve listened to his newer music, and he’s one of those artists that has continued to evolve musically through his years as a performer. I was pretty confident that this concert would not be a travesty…though I was curious how his older hits would sound.

The Eastman Theater is one of the best indoor concert venues I’ve ever been to. Filled with history, this nearly 100-year-old concert hall offers great acoustics, outstanding architectural detail, and there is not a bad seat in the house. Mellencamp’s stage set was pretty simple … with a backdrop from his Plain Spoken CD cover, there wasn’t much more on stage than the drum kits, keyboards, some guitar stands, and mic stands. It was a no-frills, down-to-business setup.

The ‘much more mature’ than I expected crowd waited patiently for the show to begin. Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash, was the opening act. Full of energy and stories from her youth, she entertained with just her strong vocals with nothing more than her acoustic guitar or piano to accompany her. About an hour into the night, the lights dimmed for John Mellencamp and his band to take the stage. Six musicians took the stage, all dressed in suits, except for violinist Mirium Sturm, who came out in a long formal dress. John Mellencamp slowly made his way to center stage, also wearing a suit, stopping along the way to acknowledge the cheering crowd.

He started the night with “Lawless Times” from his Plain Spoken album, and it was clear this was going to be a great night of music. From there we were treated to a great mix of new and old music, mixed with stories and the occasional soft shoe. He introduced “Longest Days” with a funny story about his 100 year old grandmother, who affectionately referred to him as Buddy, that tried to pray him into heaven with her…to which he quickly told her he had a lot more sinning to do. Of course, he covered his classics… “Pink Houses”, “Paper In Fire”, “Crumblin’ Down” and more with the same energy and strong vocals that we remember from the first time we heard these songs hit the radio. Before he launched into “Jack and Diane,” he told us that he only plays it to make the crowd happy…and shared a story of the night he wrote it. I’m not sure if it was fact or fiction, but it entertained. In the middle of the show, Carlene Carter came back out and sang a couple songs with Mellencamp from an album that they have recorded together, and though the material was not familiar, they sounded great together.

His band was simply outstanding. Guitarist Mike Wanchic has been in the band for 45 years, and many of the others for over a decade, and we could tell. The music was tight and they seemed to have a lot of fun while they were playing.

I’ve been to a lot of shows over the years, and this one was high on the list of my favorites. With a down-to-earth style, gravelly and soulful vocals, and a fun mix of stories, it was a perfect night of music. As a musician whose career has spanned over forty years, Mellencamp finished the evening reminiscing and talking about the old times…a fitting intro to “Cherry Bomb,” which was a great way to end a great evening watching a great performer do what he does best.