John Mellencamp oozes plenty of heart — and heartland — in rousing Chicago Theatre show

Mellencamp stuck to his tried-and-true songbook, with just two songs from his latest album “Strictly A One-Eyed Jack.”

SHARE John Mellencamp oozes plenty of heart — and heartland — in rousing Chicago Theatre show
John Mellencamp performs at the Chicago Theatre on Thursday night, in the first of a three-night residency.

John Mellencamp performs at the Chicago Theatre on Thursday night, in the first of a three-night residency.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

John Mellencamp had a few PSAs for the crowd Thursday night as the blue-collar bard kicked off a three-night stand at the Chicago Theatre. “Things might get a little political.” “If you’re going to yell during the quiet songs you might as well leave.” And, perhaps his most affirmative warning, “This is not a concert, it’s a performance.”

True to his words, the two-hour production was a flip of the script for the rocker, who is now five decades into touring. Though billed as a standard “live and in person” night with the musician, it also had the air of a night at the movies, an overt nod to the 76-date tour’s corporate sponsor, Turner Classic Movies. It’s the first time Mellencamp has done such a thing, as the notorious corporate dodger has rebuffed any formal tour backing for years. Though, Mellencamp and TCM have become interesting bedfellows in the featured attraction, putting an emphasis on the singer-songwriter’s reputation as another one of America’s great storytellers.

John Mellencamp performs to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theatre on Thursday night.

John Mellencamp performs to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theatre on Thursday night.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

With no opener for the evening, the 30-minute preview to the 19-song showdown was a montage of classic films embedded with Mellencamp’s voiceover commentary, particularly honing in on James Dean’s body of work. For years, the rabble-rousing, cussing, smoking frontman with the blue jeans and white T-shirt has played his own version of the quintessential rebel, and that throughline was even more abundant on this night as the Hoosier fully became enmeshed with his Hollywood alter ego.

Once the curtain did drop, the stage further paid homage to this mix of classic rock and classic movies with Tungsten lights that could’ve been pulled from a soundstage and a backdrop and larger-than-life mannequins that resurrected “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The over-the-top theatrics just begged for some notes of “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” the American gothic musical Mellencamp wrote with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett a decade ago.

Rather, Mellencamp stuck to his tried-and-true songbook, with just two songs from his latest album “Strictly A One-Eyed Jack.” He relied heavily on landmark gems like a surprise solo acoustic version of “Jack & Diane” and entrants from 1985’s impeccable “Scarecrow” (reissued as a box set last November) and 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee.” Seven of the 19 tracks were from those two albums; eight if you count the solemn moment during the show when a recording played actress Joanne Woodward reciting Mellencamp’s poignant lyrics to “The Real Life” as violinist/mandolinist Lisa Germano and accordion player Troye Kinnett provided an intimate soundtrack to the narration.

John Mellencamp at the Chicago Theatre.

“This is not a concert, it’s a performance,” John Mellencamp proclaimed Thursday night at the Chicago Theatre to an adoring crowd.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

As part of the ensemble supporting Mellencamp, each of the six musicians added undeniable depth and powerhouse sound to the performance, reworking arrangements to really hone in on their rootsy, bluesy, even boogie woogie (“Crumblin’ Down”) foundations as Mellencamp’s now pronounced gravelly voice — result of years committed to his second love, smoking — gave them a rugged finish.

While guitarist Mike Wanchic has been Mellencamp’s wingman for 50 years, the return of Germano after a 29-year absence was a huge boon, as evidenced in the uproarious applause any time she had a solo. As one of the sound architects of Mellencamp’s formative albums, her return brought a full-circle moment at a time that feels like the American treasure is reflecting on the legacy he will leave behind.

A legacy that includes, for example, making a recent donation of his archives to the University of Indiana in his hometown of Bloomington, or a now permanent exhibition at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But also what he chooses to write about and discuss using his platform, as he has done for decades rallying for American farmworkers.

Mellencamp’s focus now turns to what it means to be living in the land of the free. A newer, as of yet unreleased song, “The Eyes of Portland” was most evocative of the message, a Bob Dylan-esque, harmonica-filled monologue pondering the homelessness he witnessed while visiting the West Coast city, asking the audience, “Is this the kind of country we want to live in?”

“John Mellencamp: Live and in Person,” returns Friday and Saturday at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St. Tickets available at ticketmaster.com.

Set List

  • John Cockers
  • Paper in Fire
  • Minutes to Memories
  • Small Town
  • Hey God
  • Human Wheels
  • Jackie Brown
  • Check It Out
  • The Eyes of Portland
  • Longest Days
  • Jack & Diane
  • I Always Lie to Strangers
  • Rain on the Scarecrow
  • Lonely Ol’ Night
  • Crumblin’ Down/Gloria
  • Pink Houses
  • Chasing Rainbows
  • Cherry Bomb
  • Hurts So Good

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