Thursday, June 24, 1999

Mellencamp R.O.C.K.s

Indiana's favorite son electrifies friendly Riverbend crowd

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Riverbend turned into a suburb of Seymour, Ind., Tuesday night, as Seymour's favorite son came back.

        John Mellencamp's crowd was filled, as usual, with hundreds of friends and family from his hometown of Seymour, immortalized in “Small Town,” as well as from Bloomington, where he now lives.

        Even unrelated members of the near-sellout audience were old friends, as witnessed by the “I knew him when he was Johnny Cougar” T-shirts. Not that he's been given much of a chance to make many new fans, as few radio stations have played his new album, John Mellencamp.

        So his “Rural Electrification” tour is well named. Just as that Depression-era program brought power to remote hills and hollers, Mr. Mellencamp and his tight seven-member band are bringing his music directly to the people.

        With a cigarette dangling from his wide grin, he swaggered onstage in black T-shirt and slacks, and started the night with his new rocker, “I'm Not Running Anymore.”

        From there it was a non-stop barrage — “Jack and Diane,” “Lonely Ol' Night,” “Crumblin' Down,” the apocalyptic “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire,” “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” (which won a cheer for the line, “some girl he knew in Kentucky”); “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”; “Authority Song”; even his first hit, “Hurts So Good.”

        Only guitarist Mike Wanchic remains from his original band, but Mr. Mellencamp has backed off from the hip-hop and electronica experiments of 1997's Mr. Happy Go Lucky CD and tour.

        Last time out, keyboardist Moe Z rapped “Jack and Diane”; Tuesday, the song was back in original form, the biggest change being that the hook was played by violinist (and ex-Cincinnatian) Miriam Sturm.

        She has a far more prominent role, playing more lead than lead guitarist Andy York.

        Otherwise, “Rural Electrification” is a return to Mr. Mellencamp's classic, riff-driven, sing-along rock 'n' roll. Like Ms. Sturm, drummer Dane Clark has a bigger part in the band, and he made the most of it Tuesday, helping veteran Mellencamp fans forget Kenny Aronoff.

        But it wasn't all big, arena rock. Mr. Mellencamp followed his dynamic duet with backup singer Pat Peterson in “Wild Night” with a very Dylanesque, acoustic guitar-and-harmonica solo version of “Your Life is Now.” Before things got too solemn, the band quickly returned for another crowd pleaser, “Small Town.”

        No one enjoyed the show more than the star. When “Pink Houses” ended the 75-minute show, the band left the stage. Not Mr. Mellencamp. With the house lights on, he stood center stage, grinning and watching the crowd cheer for several minutes.

        Before he brought the band back for “Cherry Bomb” and “Check It Out,” he thanked his fans for their “hospitality.”

        “I been playin' over here for a lot of years and I really appreciate it very much,” he said. And he really seemed to mean it.

        Son Volt opened with a 40-minute set that toned down its country elements for a hard-edged garage-band sound.

        Thankfully, the band's singer/songwriter Jay Farrar did trade his electric guitars for a Martin acoustic to bring the stately country lyricism of “Windfall” and “Tear Stained Eye” into the quartet's rocking mix.


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