John Mellencamp With Carlene Carter McFarlin Auditorium, Dallas Saturday, March 7, 2015
By Brian Peterson
To untrained ears, and particularly to those below the age of 40, John Mellencamp may as well be the poor man's Bruce Springsteen. Both can come across as heartland rock dudes, and on the surface they write remarkably similar songs. Take "Pink Houses" and "Born in the USA," which both satirize American prosperity but have a long history of being mistaken for cornball-patriotism, by fans and presidential campaigns alike. But closer inspection reveals crucial differences between the two men, artistically and philosophically, a fact that was borne out on Saturday night when Mellencamp hit Dallas for a performance at McFarlin Auditorium.
The exceptionally white and decidedly middle-aged crowd that filled up the auditorium only accentuated the odd feeling that this was actually a church instead of a rock concert. Once inside and seated, it still felt like Sunday school despite the absence of pews, since the auditorium is more than vaguely cathedral-esque, with gold patterns sprawled up and down its walls. The symbolism was overwhelming; this is classic rock rendered as a sterile museum piece, an artifact of a bygone era.
Now, country music, that's a different story. Mellencamp likely feels that difference, employing Carlene Carter (daughter of June Carter Cash, which she shamelessly and repeatedly reminded the audience) as his opening act, a perfect choice in that she's a familiar enough name whose ballad-heavy set runs no risk of stealing the spotlight. She also emphasizes Mellencamp's Southern roots, a reminder that he's been chasing his version of The Boss's New Jersey bona fides his entire career.
But his show doesn't have room for that kind of reaching; there are no stakes to be had in this, a typical geezer affair. Granted, his music never had room for it either, which would require some element of tension from a guy whose biggest fans clap offbeat. Though it's won over the occasional critic, his defeatist narratives don't change the dynamic so much as weigh everything down.
For Springsteen's blue collar Joes, salvation isn't usually that far away. Even when the "Glory Days" have long since passed them by, heaven is always the right car-ride-with-a-girl away. He believes in transcendence, aims for it and gets there more often than not. But Mellencamp made his name (literally) on "Jack & Diane," an inescapable piece of Americana whose message isn't "Life goes on," as you'll recall, but rather, "Hold on to 16 as long as you can, because the thrills are almost gone." Talk about a small window of opportunity.
It's not likely to register from the music, though, especially the hits. For a well-known anti-corporate fella, Mellencamp churns out studiously corporate rock like he's scoring beer commercials, all two-note riffs and sing-alongs. Under various iterations of real and fake names, he's been doing it (by his count) for almost 45 years.
That last fact proved to hold the only surprise Saturday night: age has helped his art. Mellencamp's essentially been playing an old man character since the earliest Johnny Cougar days, and now he is one. "I was born in a small town/And I can breathe in a small town/Gonna die in this small town," goes the last verse of another one you'd recognize, but the original version is a caricature. From the worn and torn vocal cords of a still-energetic old rocker, it felt almost personal. At one point, he lit up a cigarette right there on stage; humanity crept in.
Which isn't to say water was turned into wine Saturday night. Regardless of setting and performance, his best moments are still some variety of Springsteen without wings, smoothed-over Bob Seger or Rod Stewart gentrified. Like anybody with Mellencamp's longevity, though, the musicians that bolster him are workmanlike professionals, with no rough edges, which is all a crowd like this demands. And for nearly two hours of fewer hits than expected, they ate it up, fiddle solos and all.
It's strange to imagine him earning any diehard fans, but they exist and they're who he plays for, judging from his relegating "Jack & Diane" to a solo-acoustic interlude. Guys will drink beer to almost anything, we know, but leave it to Dallas to secretly house women who still have the hots for John Mellencamp.
For a certain breed and background, "Pink Houses" is a Fourth of July party, "Hurts So Good" a sensual number, and "Authority Song" a rebellious youth personified. In some cases, perhaps, the sterile museum piece treatment is fully deserved.
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