Music & Nightlife

Concert Review: John Mellencamp affirms his staying power at Ovens

John Mellencamp performs during his Plain Spoken Tour at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, NC on Friday, March 27, 2015.
John Mellencamp performs during his Plain Spoken Tour at Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, NC on Friday, March 27, 2015. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

At 63, John Mellencamp is every bit as edgy and his music just as relevant as when he came on the scene in the 1970s. And he affirmed that Friday during his “Plain Spoken” tour stop at Ovens Auditorium.

Dressed in all black with his hair slicked back, Mellencamp walked on stage with his six-piece band and jumped into singing “Lawless Times” about 8:35 p.m.

Released in 2014 on his “Plain Spoken” album (his 22nd studio album), the jazzy song about corruption perfectly complemented Mellencamp’s gruff voice as he warned listeners that you can’t trust anyone.

And with the big-band style song showcasing Mellencamp’s elaborate musical ensemble, it set the tone for an evening that was just as rich in musical talent as it was in lyrical potency.

Mellencamp continued with the newer “Troubled Man” from 2014 and the older “Minutes to Memories” from 1985. His next song, the famous “Small Town” from 1985, drew the crowd to their feet as they sang along loudly and gave sustained applause afterward.

“Thank you very much. I’m John Mellencamp,” he said afterward. “Now we’re going to be doing all kinds of songs tonight. Songs you know and songs you don’t know, songs you can sing along to and songs you can dance to.”

Mellencamp definitely delivered on his promise, performing more than a dozen songs that included “Stones in My Passway,” “Pink Houses” and “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

And although he stuck to strumming his guitar and walking around the stage – and his stage decorations included little more than colorful lights and a backscreen with graffiti on it – he sure did command the auditorium with his machismo. The decades in show business haven’t smoothed over those rough edges or covered up the grit from his small-town Indiana roots.

Maybe it’s his gravelly voice or his robust stature, but Mellencamp has definitely preserved that tough guy persona.

And yet, for all his influence on stage, two of his bandmates threatened to upstage him throughout the night.

Miriam Sturm – the only female in the band and dressed in a gothically dainty long-flowing black tutu skirt and tank-top – was phenomenal on the violin, vigorously strumming as she precisely hit each note.

And what a musical treasure trove Troy Kinnett was on stage, seamlessly transitioning from playing the accordion, harmonica and keyboard – and all with just as much gusto.

One of the most memorable moments of the night came when the two enjoyed several minutes of stage time alone as they performed an intense instrumental duet with white spotlights on them.

Earlier in the night, Carlene Carter of Carter Family fame, also set the bar high when she kicked the show off at 7:30. Singing on such country music bread-and-butter topics as family, faith and heritage, Carter confirmed that she had inherited the musical prowess that made her grandmother (Mother Maybelle Carter) and mother (June Carter) mainstays in country music history.

With her sweet Southern twang, Carter captivated the audience with just herself and her guitar on stage, belting out songs like “Every Little Thing” and “Little Black Train.”

She also delighted attendees with short vignettes of growing up in the Carter family, describing how her mother told her she should get married before she had sex or she would be going to hell.

“So I got married a whole lot,” Carter said to laughter.

For a couple of songs, her husband, Joseph Breen, joined her on stage. And while it was endearing to see the couple singing together, the two almost seemed to be having a power struggle over who could sing the loudest on “Lonesome Valley 2003,” a song about the death of Carter’s mom.

The cacophonous harmonizing distracted from the vulnerability of the song’s lyrics, and Carter would have done better to sing it alone, even if it was originally intended as a duet (with Vince Gills).

Mellencamp definitely appeared to appreciate the talent he had with him on stage, although there were a couple of moments where that appreciation got awkwardly affectionate. At a couple of seemingly random junctures, Mellencamp hooked Sturm into his arms and the two whispered things into each others ears and laughed. The two even kissed each other a couple of times.

Now that’s just going to make the other bandmates suspicious that she’s your favorite, John.

Although not officially listed on tour materials, the audience – a respectable portion of which were of the baby-boom generation – sure did make for some enthusiastic backup singers for Mellencamp. At times, some might even say a bit overzealous.

As Mellencamp started singing “Jack and Diane,” the audience commandeered the song, belting out the chorus when there was still one verse left to sing first.

“Not yet,” he playfully chided. “We’re on the first section now. That’s called the chorus. There’s two verses and then the chorus.”

Throughout the night, Mellencamp’s musings hinted that perhaps the sands of time have softened this rough-around-the-edges baby boomer’s heart a little bit.

Before singing “Longest Days,” he reflected on the fact that many people start out life with a big dream, only for the outside world to tell them to “keep your mouth shut, your eyes down and eat your eggs.”

“But when you get to be about my age, you realize that having the dream was the important thing and never losing the dream was the important thing,” he said. “Whether you achieve the dream or not, it doesn’t really matter.”

He closed the concert with “Cherry Bomb,” which Mellencamp described as “a song about old times.”

The final song was fitting given that, while many of Mellencamp’s most famous songs come from a different time, their sentiments of small-town America and justice for the common man still hold just as much clout for today’s listeners.

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