Photos and Review by Max Stewart
John Mellencamp‘s music has always pulled at the heartstrings of America, with lyrics that evoke the many range of emotions that encapsulate life of the working class: joy, heartbreak, despair, love, and all things in between. Many of his songs have an upbeat sense of optimism while reflecting on the past, which could be why his catalog resonates with so many people.
I attended the sold-out February show at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre alongside my mom, who will turn 70 this year. What made the night even more memorable is my wife and I let my parents know hours before the concert that we are expecting a baby girl in August. Seeing my mom light up with this news and then be able to see one of her favorites musicians will be something I will never forget. As we walked into the ornate theatre (which opened in 1929), she recalled going there to see movies with her dad as a child, including Around The World In 80 Days.
It made perfect sense that the night began with some vintage movie clips (including A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront), which set the scene for the Americana-esque vibe of the evening. There were even mannequins of Hollywood legends like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe on the stage alongside the musicians. The retro aesthetic worked perfectly in the picturesque environment. Sure, the average age of the audience skewed on the Baby Boomer side, but there were mounds of families and Millennial couples taking advantage of seeing one of America’s great songwriters.
When Mellencamp took the stage for the opener “John Cockers”, the crowd was primed and ready to sing loud on a Friday night in Georgia. The setlist was a good variety of his extensive discography and featured a heavy dose of tunes from 1985’s Scarecrow (“Minutes to Memories” was one of the highlights) and 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. When he sang the emotive “We Are The People,” it really rang true given the sad state of affairs in so many cities today: “If you are one of the homeless, May my thoughts be with you, If you are scared and alone, You know, our thoughts are with you.” There were also some fantastic renditions of “Chasing Rainbows” and “I Always Lie to Strangers” from his strong latest release, Strictly a One-Eyed Jack. It was a cool break in the typical actions of the night when there was a spoken word recording of Hollywood’s late Joanne Woodward doing “The Real Life,” with keyboardist/accordionist Troye Kinnett and violinist Lisa Germano performing. Again, at every beat, the night had an old school, all-American feel.
The intimacy of the acoustic portion of the set was highlighted by the full crowd singing “Jack & Diane,” with Mellencamp interjecting when the crowd was overly-eager to belt out the chorus before his second verse: “Do you know how long it took for me to write that second verse!?” It is amazing how a song can bring that unexpected emotion out of you in a live setting, and Mellencamp’s show did just that. Something about a solo acoustic guitar and thousands of peoples’ voices in unison, it’s definitively spiritual. As my mom and I sang (likely out of tune) “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…” it made me extremely thankful for all that we have and all that is to come.
The band really hit their stride with “Crumblin’ Down,” which included a rocking interlude of “Gloria” in the middle section. Mellencamp then went into the timeless “Pink Houses,” with the entire theatre crowd on its feet.
A few times in the night, my mom would be singing at the top of her lungs and turn to me and say: “I am already in love with your baby girl!” It was a surreal feeling being able to see one of the legends of heartland rock as I look ahead to having my first child. Maybe one day I will take her to see a show at the Fox Theatre and we can sing and dance together.
Mellencamp making memories across generations, ain’t that America?