John Mellencamp at the Beacon Theatre Wednesday night (Photo: Yee Fan Chu)
John Mellencamp concert crowds always seem different.
It’s more than the way they like to sing along to his eminently singalong-able hits: It’s the way they respectfully and adoringly shower their deep appreciation upon him with prolonged applause at the outset as he saunters on stage after his band takes their designated positions.
He doesn’t let these opening ovations take up as much time now as he did when he filled New York area arenas in his hit single heyday, what with such a large body of songs to select from in a necessarily tight set list. But at the final night (Feb. 27) of three sell-outs last week at the Beacon Theatre, he gave fans plenty of opportunity to show their love—and even gave it back more than he used to.
Toying with them on the show’s centerpiece solo acoustic performance of “Jack and Diane,” for instance, he stopped them after the first verse when they mistakenly omitted the second in anxiously skipping ahead to the chorus. He played with them, too, with his call-and-response recitation of “Long Gone (From Bowlin' Green),” chanted by Sidney Poitier in the opening scene from the classic 1958 prison escape film The Defiant Ones. This followed a grand big band concert opening of “Lawless Times” (from his 2014 album Plain Spoken), “Troubled Land” (from 2008’s Life, Death, Love and Freedom), and one of his most powerful songs, “Minutes to Memories” (his 1985 landmark Scarecrow), followed, still without break, by Scarecrow’s big hit “Small Town.”
He would return later to that album’s hit “Lonely Ol’ Night” and lead track “Rain on the Scarecrow,” all the while showcasing one of the best bands in the business. They’ve also been together in the current configuration (guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, violinist Miriam Sturm, drummer Dane Clark, bassist John Gunnell and keyboardist Troye Kinnett) since 2006, with Wanchic backing Mellencamp at least 40 years. No wonder they play and move about and together so comfortably while creating the lustrous arrangements that Mellencamp’s recordings and concerts are known for and cherished.
The mid-set acoustic segment showcasing “Jack and Diane” also featured the most powerful political expression by the populist artist and deserving winner last year of The Woody Guthrie Prize (given annually to an artist who best exemplifies the spirit and life work of Woody Guthrie by speaking for the less fortunate and serving as a positive force for social change). “Easy Target,” from 2017’s Sad Clowns and Hillbillies (which also included “My Soul’s Got Wings,” with his music to Guthrie’s lyrics), concerning the Guthrie themes of racism and the poor, was sung in a lower Tom Waits growl, and when it ended, Mellencamp dramatically took a knee.
Instrumentally, “Easy Target” was accompanied solely by Sturm and Kinnett, who stayed on for their duo spotlight “Overture”--a suite of Mellencamp standards, with Kinnett now on accordion. Mellencamp and the rest returned for the big finish of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin' Down,” “Authority Song” (with a bit of “Land of a Thousand Dances” thrown in for more Mellencamp-led audience participation), “Pink Houses” (nice piano opening from Kinnett), and the usual closer, “Cherry Bomb.”
There was no encore, but with the same heartfelt applause that welcomed him at the start, Mellencamp returned to bid farewell by reprising a few verses from “Long Gone (From the Bowlin' Green).” The Defiant Ones, by the way, concludes with Poitier and Tony Curtis, whose characters were chained together at the beginning, overcoming their racist hatred for each other at the end.
Mellencamp likewise ended with a verse affirming the goodness of being alive.
John Mellencamp and band perform "Lawless Times"