John Mellencamp’s mix of Americana story songs and heartland rock anthems make him a natural State Fair performer. It’s hard to believe he never performed at the Grandstand until last night.
With a clear sky offset by the lights of the fair’s new Ferris wheel swirling in the distance, it was a perfect summer night. Mellencamp and his band modestly took the stage with the blues shuffle of “Lawless Times.” As he sang about digital obsessions and “creepers tapping on their cell phones,” the audience ignored the short voiceover introduction from just moments before that had instructed them not to use their phones or take pictures.
Mellencamp bounced around his catalog for a bit, giving the impression that he was playing the songs he really likes before moving on to the anticipated hits much of the audience was there to hear. Many of these songs, especially those from Scarecrow, the 1985 album he kept returning to for material throughout the set, offer a distinctive perspective on rural American life. Mellencamp didn’t add any spoken commentary to these, letting songs like “Minutes to Memories” and (the first big hit of the night) the jangly “Small Town” do the talking.
When he did address the crowd, rolling up his sleeves, with chewing gum in his mouth, the singer spoke quite simply in his gravelly voice: “Thank you very much everybody. I’m John Mellencamp.”
After Mellencamp announced that he was going to play a lot of songs everybody knew and a lot of songs everybody didn’t really know, the band condensed down to a four-piece for a rough slide-guitar take on Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” The gritty version of “Pop Singer” that followed sounded almost like “Gimme Shelter,” leading into a mellow “Check it Out.”
Soon alone with his acoustic guitar, the 65-year old confessed, “I don’t know why I play this song anymore since I wrote it when I was so young. So I guess I really play it because I know you want to hear it.” Mellencamp told a story about how he wrote “Jack and Diane” at a party, then let the audience handle most of its vocal duties, comedically scolding everyone when they skipped the second verse and went straight to the chorus.
The evening’s opener (and Mellencamp’s collaborator), country singer Carlene Carter, joined him on stage for a pair of tunes from this year’s Sad Clowns and Hillbillies: “Grandview,” and the gospel rave-up, “My Soul’s Got Wings.”
The rest of the band then took a break as violinist Miriam Sturm and keyboardist Troye Kinnett (on accordion) performed a French café-style medley of classic Mellencamp material, including “Jerry,” “Just Another Day,” “I Need a Lover,” and “Ain’t Even Done with the Night.”
Returning to the stage with “Paper in Fire,” Mellencamp and crew revved up the rest of the set with a string of surefire hits. The drums pounded through “Crumblin’ Down,” and Mellencamp shimmied and commanded a call and response interlude during a charged “Authority Song,” which took a detour into Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 10,000 Dances.”
Mellencamp welcomed Carter back out for a rousing “Pink Houses,” another singalong. After introducing the band and noting his 45-year relationship with guitarist Mike Wanchic, Mellencamp reflected on “old times” and had everyone reliving their own memories with the finale, “Cherry Bomb.”
Critic's bias: Always preferred John Cougar to John Mellencamp.
The crowd: A virtually full, well-oiled Grandstand of Minnesota State Fair lovers.
Random notebook dump: Whenever people see a pile of cookies somebody’s dropped on the ground at the State Fair they huddle around like it’s some massive tragedy.
Minutes to Memories
Stones in My Passway
Check it Out
Jack & Diane
My Soul’s Got Wings
Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper in Fire