Music & Nightlife

Review: All-you-can-Mellencamp buffet of new and classic songs, stories — and a movie

In a world that lives on social media, the announcement before the John Mellencamp show at Ovens Auditorium on Friday felt unusual.

“We are deadly serious about this — no photography or videography is allowed during the performance,” a voice proclaimed over a loudspeaker, her words overcoming the chatter in the women’s restroom line.

“Deadly serious,” one concertgoer repeated.

“Why waste time videoing when you are here to see the show?” another asked. Many may have agreed with her sentiment, but there were plenty who didn’t, as the no-camera rule lasted all of one minute into his actual performance.

But first, a surprisingly slow start: a short movie kicked off the show. The crowd erupted in applause when the lights dimmed, only to slowly sink back down into their seats upon discovery that Ovens had become a makeshift movie theater. As fans not-so-patiently waited in their seats, it would be easy to forget that we were actually here for a live event.

The flick took us through Mellencamp’s career, from the early days as John Cougar to his overnight fame and then a decision after a heart attack at 42 to take a step back to figure out the important things.

A touching film, but the real fans knew much of the story anyway, did they not?

“The first time I heard John Mellencamp, I was at my grandmother’s house in Michigan,” a male voice said on the film, and the crowd in Charlotte chuckled — many were likely grandparents themselves, playing “Jack & Diane” for their own grandchildren in their own homes.

Soon enough, the crowd grew weary of the movie. Rounds of clapping would start and then stop as people waited impatiently for their star. “Play the music!” someone yelled from the balcony at one point. It would be more than 20 minutes before he took the stage.

Finally, after another announced reminder — this one to put away phones completely — Mellencamp himself took the stage. He sang a combination of old, semi-old and new songs. The crowd put up with the first few tunes, not sure whether to sit or stand and choosing a combination of both. When he finally performed something we all knew, “Small Town,” the auditorium awakened.

It was — finally — time to see a Mellencamp show.

The “deadly serious” directive must have just been a suggestion, as the digital point-and-shoots and the phones were out soon enough. Guests tried to be sneaky when breaking Mellencamp’s rule. But overly brightened screens and flashes forgotten to be turned off glowed, evidence from rows away.

Several people even unknowingly turned phone flashlights on while fumbling in the dark to sneak a chance at a pixelated, zoomed-in photo of the star. Some guests would quickly pop out the camera just to take a picture, flash on, only to accidentally shoot the back of the person’s head in front of them.

Did Mellencamp even make it into those photos? Likely not. Songs were captured on video — in grainy, wobbly frames, a few seconds at a time — before security would either approach or the person would decide on their own to pull back the camera, jerking it back down.

The woman who had spoken up in the bathroom earlier must have been wondering what in the world those around her were doing wasting time. Or she was lost in the show itself, which was going on for those focused on the music and amateur filmmakers alike.

We all knew Mellencamp is a gifted storyteller in song, but his spoken word was just as entertaining. His stories ranged from a funny one about a band mate being arrested for lewd vagrancy to a sweet one about how his grandmother told him “life is short, even in its longest days,” which set up his 2008 ballad “Longest Days.”

This one was sung to the audience during what Mellencamp called the “quiet session” in the middle of the show. During this time, he asked for no hooting and hollering — if guests were inclined to yell, they should go do it in the hallway, he said.

Plenty of cheering was to be had during the livelier hits. “Crumblin’ Down,” “Jack & Diane” were crowd favorites. Seeing “Pink Houses” performed live was alone a reason to attend; it was unforgettable.

At the end of the night, as the rest of the band left the stage, Mellencamp stayed back for one more moment with his fans. “Ain’t we all lucky to be alive?” he sang out, then offered a quick “Goodnight, you guys,” running off the stage — no encore needed.

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