Bloomington, Indiana’s most famous son shakes the snow globe of American music to mix up a melodic mélange of Motown, 12-bar blues, country and heartland rock in the soulful, riveting “John Mellencamp’s Sad Clowns and Hillbillies Summer 2017 Tour.”
Carlene Cash, his opening act and collaborator on their titular album released last April, kicked off the lightly raining evening, looking and sounding like her mom June Carter Cash. She, like Mellencamp, has been performing for four decades, and had toured with him for their 2015-16 Plain Spoken tour, singing backup and duets (on five of the 13 tracks) with Mellencamp, as well as playing guitar, autoharp and co-writing some songs.
Her stepdad Johnny Cash called Mellencamp “one of the ten best songwriters,” and those chops were showcased during his tight, energetic set. The co-founder of Farm Aid (celebrating 32 years of helping farming families on September 22) fronted a six-piece band wearing smart, casual tuxedos, in front of a compelling, abstract scrim. Mellencamp eventually peeled off his jacket to reveal his traditional rolled-sleeve white t-shirt and black vest combo.
Mike Wanchic and Andy York were on guitars and backing vocals, Dane Clark on drums and vocals, John Gunnell on bass, and Troye Kinnett covered vocals, keys and accordion.
A standout was fiddler Miriam Sturm, whose well-sculpted arms and ferocious violin licks lent down-home authenticity as well as a classical feel to the impressive repertoire.
Tunes from his 23rd studio album were sprinkled with the hits that got Mellencamp inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2008, including “Small Town,” “Pop Singer,” “Check It Out,” “Jack and Diane,” “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” and “Pink Houses.”
Mellencamp still has his pompadour and a fire in his belly and the best story songs in the business. With little interstitial patter, he did direct “Authority Song” to the current administration. He included his audience in all his popular refrains about ordinary folks experiencing real-life ups and downs.
John Mellencamp and Carlene Carter played on August 26 at Ravinia, 201 Ravinia Park Road, Highland Park. For upcoming dates, including Stevie Nicks and Smokey Robinson, and information before the season concludes, visit https://www.ravinia.org