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Hits so good: John Mellencamp invited fans to check it out at 2 sold-out shows in Vancouver

Before the music starts, the Indiana rocker showcases classic movie clips on current tour
John Mellencamp at Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

Getting old sucks.

John Mellencamp knows it. He’s 71 and feeling mortal these days, judging by the tone and musical content of his second Vancouver concert in consecutive nights at Granville Street’s Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday (March 14).

The Indiana icon still rocks, just a little less so. His voice doesn’t have the same power, and he doesn’t dance as well as in his ’80s heyday. He’s also kinda grumpy these days, or maybe always has been.

Still, Mellencamp’s well-rehearsed current tour reveals a man who embraces his hit-filled history and has the confidence to carry on in a more refined, equally charismatic way, with some re-imagined songs that resonate.

And those hits? They still hit so good.

The former Johnny Cougar loves his movies, so it makes sense that TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is a tour sponsor and why clips of some classics played as a sort of an opening act. In voice-over, Mellencamp talked about how he’d lift song lyrics from his favourites, like the “lonely ol’ night” line from the movie “Hud,” starring Paul Newman.

As a scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire” played, the screen lifted to reveal the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r and his six-musician band playing “John Cockers.”

It was the first of 21 songs for Mellencamp and band, and the set list hasn’t changed much since the tour’s first show Feb. 5 at Indiana University.

“We’re going to be doing some songs that you know, some songs you don’t know, some songs you can dance to, and songs you can sing along with,” he told the crowd early on.

After a run of songs, ending with a spine-tingling “Check It Out,” Mellencamp strapped on an acoustic guitar for the start of the night’s most engaging section.

But first, a “public service announcement” from the stage that he doesn’t tolerate people who scream during the quiet parts of songs, and that those who do should exit to the lobby bar. “We don’t want you in here with your dumb-ass screaming,” he warned with a few F-bombs for emphasis.

Before “Eyes of Portland,” Mellencamp told the sad story of meeting a woman who was thankful to have some help without the burden of sex for money. He talked about his grandma and getting old in “Longest Days,” then introduced “Jack and Diane” as a song he wrote as a young man who knew absolutely everything, or thought he did.

The big hit from 1982 became a singalong, of course, but only after Mellencamp stopped the little ditty to give a tutorial about where to sing the verse, chorus and bridge, and how fans need to get it right. It’s something he’s done at previous tour stops, so it came as no surprise to those who’ve read the reviews.

Mid-set, Mellencamp took a deserved break during a clever version of “The Real Life,” the lyrics of which were spoken as poetry in a voice-over by his friend Joanne Woodward, the Hollywood actor, to music played by accordionist Troye Kinnett and violinist Lisa Germano.

And then the hits just kept coming, including “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb” and a show-closing “Hurts So Good,” which was tuned down a couple of steps to match Mellencamp’s current vocal range.

The heartland rocker is sounding a bit like Tom Waits these days, and maybe that’s because of all the cigarettes. The reality is, Mellencamp could use a great backup singer or two. Tuesday’s sound mix was a bit muddy, too, and I sure missed the CRACK of the Kenny Aronoff-era drums, circa 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee” tour.

But life goes on, as the song goes.

An American treasure, Mellencamp remains a champion of the working man, and that won’t change. His adoring fans know it, and love him for it. And they just keep singing along with all those hits of his.

What’s not to love about that, especially on a spring-like Tuesday night in a glorious old theatre?

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Tom Zillich

About the Author: Tom Zillich

I cover entertainment, sports and news stories for the Surrey Now-Leader, where I've worked for more than half of my 30-plus years in the newspaper business.
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