Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mellencamp & Carter: New Concert, Old Memories

John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter
Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA
July 25, 2015

John Mellencamp gets no respect. I know because I'm as guilty as anybody when it comes to under-estimating this rock icon. I want to review the concert of his that I saw last night, but first I need to go back 33 years or so and issue an apology.

In 1982 I was a manager for the Music Plus chain of record stores. One fine day I was at the home office attending one of our regular managers meetings when they rolled out a TV, dimmed the lights, and played us a video of a new song we would be promoting.

We thought it was a joke. We recognized the artist from his prior poor-selling albums, but this little ditty about teenagers sucking down chili dogs behind Tastee Freezes in the heartland (among other things) did not impress us. I get it now, but back then I was just too cool to relate. We laughed through it and made rude jokes about his height and how Pat Benatar's cover his previous single, "I Need A Lover," had outsold his.

The lights came up and the bosses said, "And now we'd like you to meet Mr. Cougar..." When the song had started he had apparently slipped into the room and was seated right behind us. Oops. If he overheard anything he didn't let on and very kindly spoke with each of us and signed all our copies of American Fool.

In the decades since I've slowly come to respect him more and more. While I've never been a super fan, I have bought a couple of CDs, and appreciated him as a thoughtful person, and a dedicated musician. Still, when the Mrs. suggested we see him in concert I was slow to jump on it, until she told me the opening act would be Carlene Carter.

By the time of my Johnny Cougar faux pas, Carlene Carter had already become my secret country crush. Back around 1979 I'd slip on Musical Shapes or Two Sides to Every Woman between the Ramones, Who, Deep Purple, and Kinks records that were my norm. I've followed her career off and on since then, but never had a chance to meet her or even see her live until last night.

Her performance was worth the 35 year wait. Just her and her guitar (and occasional piano) was enough to fill the hall with raw country emotion and rock 'n' roll power. Her new CD, Carter Girl, is a tribute to her family, so the show was full of stories of learning to play guitar from grandma, Maybelle Carter, getting songwriting advice from her mother, June, and watching them perform with the rest of the Carter Family. She shared how her life changed when her mom married "Big John" (Cash), growing the family, but keeping the roots close to home and their music.

Most of the Mellencamp audience may not have known who that Carter Girl was when she stepped out on stage, but by the time she was done they were cheering every song, laughing at all her stories, and singing along with (her great uncle) A.P. Carter's version of "Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By)."

After her set she took a table in the lobby, signing pictures and CDs, talking with the fans, and smiling for pictures with every one of us. Getting that hug from her will stand as one of my favorite "brush with greatness" stories for many years to come.

That would have been enough for the night, but the lights were dimming in the theater, and Mr. Mellencamp was taking the stage, so we re-took our seats.

Did I mention that John Mellencamp gets no respect? I mean, I knew he'd put on a good show. I didn't know he'd put on a great one. The man, and his six-piece band, are professional rockers. They are note perfect, powerful, and play off each others' strengths like a well-oiled machine. And why shouldn't they be tight? Guitarist Mike Wanchic has been with Mellencamp for 40 years! Violinist Miriam Sturm for over 20.

There were (most of) the hits you'd expect (or demand) to hear - after all these years you kind of forget just how many he's had - and plenty of new songs too in the nearly two hour set. While most of them were played seriously, even he's now laughing at "Jack and Diane," doing it solo acoustic, while the rest of the band took a quick break.

"I don't know why I even play this thing anymore, other than that you expect it," was part of the intro. He then let the audience do most of the work, laughing and correcting them when they launched into the chorus after the first verse. "No, the chorus doesn't come until after the second verse! If I'd known then that you wanted to go right to the chorus I could have saved a lot of time and trouble coming up with that second verse."

Miss Carter came back on to join the band on a couple of numbers from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical that Mr. Mellencamp wrote with Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King). Rumor is that once the tour is over, Mellencamp and Carter will be recording a duets album together.

The show continued and rocked some more. I thought it was coming to a crescendo when the Walls Came a-Tumblin' Down, but it just continued to build from there. The entire audience were on their feet screaming along with the last several numbers. He Fought Authority, and I swear this time he won.

Bottom line: It was a thrill to hear and meet Carlene Carter after all these years, and John Mellencamp deserves our respect as one of the hardest working rockers we've got. John, I'm sorry for making fun of your video. And your name. And your height. You rock, sir. Thank you.

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