Before he took the stage Saturday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, John Mellencamp sent fans on a trip down memory lane via a documentary detailing the ups and downs of his lengthy career.
“I don’t think in 1975 anybody would have imagined that we’d be doing this today,” he’s heard saying as photos of a young Mellencamp flash on screen. “The longevity of this is surprising. It’s all been a happy accident.”
The documentary touched on the health scares that led to Mellencamp taking a break from life on the road and the impact of Mellencamp’s music over the years.
The video wasn’t wholly necessary as most in the crowd likely already knew just about all there is to know about Mellencamp, but it was a nice primer nonetheless.
“I always learn something from my audience,” Mellencamp said as the documentary came to an end. “I wonder what I’ll learn tonight.”
With a wave to the crowd, Mellencamp launched into “Lawless,” “Troubled Land” and the still-powerful “Minutes to Memories.”
“Small Town” followed, getting the whole crowd on its feet for the first of many times, then Mellencamp addressed the audience.
“This is the way things are going to go tonight,” he said. “We’re going to play songs you know, songs you don’t know, songs you can sing to and songs you can dance to…
There’s going to be a quiet section. If you’re one of those loud (expletive)s, go out in the hallway. We got a deal?”
To seal the deal, Mellencamp led the audience in an a capella version of Louis Armstrong’s “Long Gone (From Bowlin’ Green), followed by a full-band cover of Robert Johnson’s blues-y tune “Stones in My Passway.”
After performing “We Are the People,” “Lonely Ol’ Night” and “Check It Out,” Mellencamp let the audience know the quiet section had arrived.
He then took a few moments to tell a sweet story about his grandmother, though he mentioned he was originally going to take it out of the set but didn’t know “if the people in Oregon” had heard it.
Before her death at the age of 100, Mellencamp’s grandmother called him to her bedside. Once there, Mellencamp’s grandmother told him, affectionately calling him “buddy,” that they needed to pray.
After an “uncomfortably long” time, Mellencamp’s grandmother wrapped things up with “Me and Buddy are ready to come home.”
Mellencamp, unable to stop himself, blurted out “Grandma, what the (expletive)? Buddy’s not ready to come home. Buddy’s got a lot more singing he intends to do.”
Mellencamp told the crowd that whenever there was a quiet moment in his life, he believed his grandmother was looking over him, and that now she was looking over the members of the audience too.
Mellencamp ended the story on a poignant note.
“When she was 99, she said ‘Buddy, I love you, but you’re going to find out life is short even in your longest days’.”
A performance of, of course, “Longest Days” followed, as did an acoustic, though still lively, version of “Jack and Diane.”
Joined by violinist Miriam Sturm and pianist Troye Kinnett, Mellencamp then told the audience he thinks we can all agree on the freedom of speech, that we’re all created equal, that women deserve equal pay and that children deserve quality education no matter what their economic background, a perfect lead in to “Easy Target,” a moving, political song off his 2017 record “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.”
At the end of the song, Mellencamp waved a white flag, briefly took a knee, then left the stage while Sturm and Kinnett, now playing accordion, continued to play.
When he returned to the stage, Mellencamp and band made it known the quiet section was over with high energy performances of “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down” and a mash-up of Mellencamp’s “Authority Song” and the Chris Kenner tune “Land of 1000 Dances,” which was made famous by Wilson Pickett.
After “Pink Houses,” Mellencamp shared another fun story with the audience, this one about longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic’s long ago arrest for lewd vagrancy.
“The only problem with talking about old times is you’ve got to be old to talk about them,” Mellencamp said.
Wanting to “end the show with a song about the good times,” Mellencamp and Co. played “Cherry Bomb,” a song about the time Mellencamp spent at the Last Exit Teen Club when he was a teenager.
Before leaving the stage for good, Mellencamp got the audience to join him for another singalong of “Long Gone (From Bowlin’ Green).”
During the documentary, the narrator noted that Mellencamp “sang about the joys and struggles of ordinary people trying to make their way.”
Judging from the crowd that hung onto Mellencamp’s every word, just as strong as they were in his youth, it’s clear the ordinary people in Spokane still appreciate him for giving them a voice.