Between opener Carlene Carter's and John Mellencamp's sets at Comerica Theatre Wednesday night, a beer vendor walked through the aisles of the grand theater, shouting out to the crowd as if it were a ballgame and not a seated event at one of downtown Phoenix's finest venues.
The contrast matched the profile of the crowd that night. You had equal parts tony, sharply dressed Scottsdale crowd rubbing elbows with people who were all but wearing blue collars. The sharp diversity (well, diverse meaning many shades of white) of the crowd is a testament to the legacy of Mellencamp, whose thoughtful and conscious blues- and folk-rock ingratiated himself into the heartland in the ’70s and ’80s. Much of his concert ran like a greatest hits album, interspersed with the singer's down-to-earth, folksy commentary, and anecdotes between songs.
The concert began with a simple introduction. The lights went down and a male voice came over a P.A., saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, from Seymour, Indiana, Mr. John Mellencamp." The curtain lifted, revealing five men in black suits and a gowned fiddle player, and the band launched into the opening notes of "Lawless Times." Soon after, Mellencamp entered the stage, causing the packed crowd of thousands to stand up and cheer. The ovation was short-lived, as soon everyone was once again seated, listening to Mellencamp's excellent ensemble.
And excellent it was. The musical performances from every member shined throughout the night; violinist Miriam Sturm stole the show several times with some high-grade fiddle solos. Mellencamp has developed into an excellent entertainer as he's aged; his patter and stage banter were extremely entertaining and delivered with surprisingly sharp comedic timing.
At one point he launched into a story about his grandma and his dad, only to be interrupted by a drunken fan.
"What? What did that guy say?" Mellencamp asked, annoyed at the interruption to his impeccably paced story.
"Anyway, before I was so rudely interrupted," he said, pausing to let the crowd cheer in agreement. "I don't come to your work and stand around and yell at you . . . Oh, I see the problem. The motherfucker has an Indiana shirt on."
Not many musicians handle hecklers with self-effacing grace and control, and he soon seamlessly transitioned back into his story, which ended with his grandma looking coolly into his eyes and saying him, "Buddy, you're going to find out soon that life is short, even on its longest days." This was the perfect transition to "Longest Days," which of course repeats this line after every verse.
The band left as Mellencamp began a solo acoustic version of "Jack and Diane." He sang the first verse and then stopped singing to let the crowd take control, and the crowded jubilantly rushed into the chorus. But Mellencamp wasn't going to let that happen so soon. He stopped playing.
"What are you doing?" he exclaimed, amused. "There's two verses and then the chorus!"
Later in the evening, Carlene Carter came on stage and joined Mellencamp for two songs from Ghost Brothers, a Stephen King-penned musical for which Mellencamp composed the songs. The fiddle player and the accordion player later performed a gorgeous duet, an unusual but very pretty combination. After this, Mellencamp took off his jacket, wearing black suit pants, a white short-sleeve shirt, and a black vest, and cut loose, launching into a string of hits like "If I Die Sudden" and "Pink Houses," ending the night with a powerful performance of "Cherry Bomb." He looked like a Midwestern James Dean.
Last Night: John Mellencamp and Carlene Carter at Comerica Theatre
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The Crowd: Looked equal parts Cactus Jack's and Kazimierz.
The Venue: Concerts at Comerica Theatre are funny things. The venue is very much a classic hall in the "theater" sense, designed to handle musicals and ballet performances and orchestras as well as concerts. People sat down for most of the concert, even though Mellencamp's rock ’n’ roll at times demands the opposite. There were a few women around me who would occasionally stand up and clap and dance, to the annoyance of the people sitting quietly behind them.
Random Notebook Dump: "John Cougar Mellencamp should do audiobooks."