Years ago, when there used to be late-concert shows on Friday and Saturday nights, I loved to watch Little Johnny Cougar. I’d fallen in love with Pat Benetar’s “I Need a Lover” and then fell even more in love with the original version that I heard on the local AOR FM station. He’d run across the stage and jump onto the shoulders of one his bandmates and I would squeal. He was a great showman and songwriter and fun to watch and listen to. So, earlier this year, when tickets went on sale for John Mellencamp’s show at Forest Hills Stadium, I was there. So was rtb and Mrs. Devereaux, who shares a home state with Mellencamp. Our seats were in a section near the stage but up in the nosebleeds. Sometime after the ticket purchase I wrote a letter to AXS complaining about the situation at Music Hall of Williamsburg. I don’t know if this was their apology because they never mentioned why but I got an email telling me that I was getting an upgrade. We were given tickets one section below the original, a few rows up, and close to the stage. Excellent seats.
The weather was iffy and I wore my rain poncho while walking to the bus stop. During the walk the skies opened up. By the time the bus arrived, the sun was shining, and the rain had stopped. It didn’t rain the rest of the evening. When the usher showed me to my seat, I tipped her and, from what I could see, only one other person tipped the usher. I guess that’s not done anymore when someone takes the time to wipe off the seat for you (remember those old guys at the baseball stadiums?). And, did I mention that Forest Hills Stadium is within walking distance of my house? I wish I wanted to see more shows there because I love being so close to home.
We were told via email that the show would begin at 6:20. At 6:30pm, Carlene Carter was on stage. She contributed to Mellencamp’s latest album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies and played a song from that album. Her first song wouldn’t sound out of place on a Rockpile album (after all she is the ex-Mrs. Nick Lowe). So there are several influences going on that meld from one into the other. Her grandmother Maybelle Carter, her mother June Carter, stepfather Johnny Cash, and those musicians who were influenced by her family and took rockabilly and created pub rock.
Carter mentioned that she was married three times before she was 23 years old because her mother told her no sex unless she was married. She finally figured out her mistake and her fourth marriage has been a happy one. There was a song about being a Carter and another for her stepfather. Lily & Madeleine (from Indiana) joined her for several songs, adding beautiful harmonies. They also appear on the new album. But it was mostly Carter on acoustic guitar or piano. I’d only heard one or two songs of hers through the years and was delighted to hear her material.
Next up was Emmylou Harris and the Red Dirt Boys – Bryan Owings (drums), Chris Donohue (electric bass and electric upright bass), Will Kimbrough (electric and acoustic guitar), and Phil Madeira (accordion/keys). Emmylou played acoustic guitar and, as usual, sang beautifully. Carter and Lily & Madeleine joined her for one song (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”). We heard familiar covers like “Pancho & Lefty” and “Abraham, Martin, and John,” which I knew was coming as soon as I heard Emmylou’s introduction and I was happy to hear her version. There was also an a cappella song where most of the band gathered around one mic with only the bass playing.
Mellencamp’s band came out first – all dressed in black suits except for the female fiddle player in a long black dress – and playing the blues. One of the first things I noticed was that there were a lot of amps on stage. Mellencamp came out to huge applause. He didn’t make us wait long for one of the hits – “Small Town” was the fourth song. Even though I grew up in NYC, I identify with and love heartland rock. Growing up in a neighborhood in NYC is just like growing up in a small town – at least it was when I was growing up.
The band (per Wikipedia) is Mike Wanchic (guitars and back-up vocals); Andy York (guitars and back-up vocals); Miriam Sturm (violin); Dane Clark (drums and back-up vocals); John Gunnell (electric and upright bass); and Troye Kinnett (keys, accordion, and back-up vocals). I read one review that claimed it was Madiera on keys and accordion.
They covered Robert Johnson (“Stones in My Passway”) as a 4-piece blues band. There were other hits like “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses,” and ended with “Cherry Bomb.” So we didn’t get to hear “Hurt So Good.” “Jack and Diane” was done as a solo acoustic with the audience singing along loudly. Unfortunately, we messed up the second verse by going straight to the chorus, so Mellencamp had to stop and correct us.
Emmylou and Carlene joined him for “My Soul’s Got Wings” but I was really blown away by Carlene’s vocals on “Grandview” and “Pink Houses” where she showed a bluesy quality missing from her opening set. I thought that “Easy Target” sounded like it could be a Tom Waits song and when Mellencamp mentioned BLM, I silently cheered. There was an overture before “Rain on the Scarecrow” and during it there was a piece of “I Need a Lover” and I screamed out loud but they never played that song. It was a real longshot anyway. Lily & Madeleine contributed backing vocals for most of the set.
Before the encore the band didn’t leave the stage. The stage went dark and then lit up again. Forest Hills Stadium has a hard cut-off, so there was no time for a long break for applause. Before “Cherry Bomb,” Mellencamp said that when you’re still talking about old times you’re bringing them into the present, so you’re really talking about the present.
Mellencamp has the same dance moves as the ones I saw so many years ago on TV. The old times are the present.
By Carene Lydia Lopez