John Mellencamp’s Good Samaritan Tour 2000 Revisited

A new documentary and companion live album celebrate heartland artist’s historic series of free summer concerts across the U.S.

I’ve listened to John Mellencamp since 1982 and Jack & Diane when he was still known as John Cougar and would call myself a fan. But until last Friday, I had not been aware of his Good Samaritan Tour, a series of free, stripped down and unannounced concerts he gave across the U.S. in the summer of 2000. Now the tour is revisited in a documentary that started to stream on the YouTube channel of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on August 27. It also coincided with the release of a companion album, The Good Samaritan Tour 2000.

According to Mellencamp’s website, the documentary is “narrated by Academy® Award winner Matthew McConaughey,” chronicling his “historic tour in 2000 when he performed for free in public parks and common spaces across the country. The film was executive produced by Federal Films, produced by John Mellencamp and Randy Hoffman, directed by Shan Dan Horan, mixed by Andy York and has special contributions by Nora Guthrie.” Nora is the daughter of Woodie Guthrie, one of Mellencamp’s big influences.

As the documentary notes in the beginning, Mellencamp viewed the tour as a way to thank his fans for all their support they had given him throughout the years. The impromptu gigs were performed without official permission from local authorities. “We also want to say this is not a concert,” Mellencamp tells an audience in Chicago. “I’m just playing on the street. So if you can’t hear I’m sorry, but we didn’t bring a big PA system because we didn’t want it to be a concert.”

However, Mellencamp did bring along two young musicians: accordion player Mike Flynn and violinist Merritt Lear. There was also Harry Sandler, Mellencamp’s road manager at the time, who helped organize where the trio would play. There was no road crew. “It was really kind of a hippy thing to do, you know,” Mellencamp notes in the documentary. “It reminded me of what I had seen happen in Washington Square, you know, during the ’60s when, you know, people would play in Washington Square and people would sit around, like it was a folk thing.”

John Mellencamp - Official Website :: News Articles
From left: Merritt Lear, Mike Flynn, John Mellencamp and Harry Sandler

“I had my little accordion, Merritt had a fiddle, John had his two acoustic guitars,” Flynn recalls in the film. “It was really raw and stripped down is to say the least.” Adds Lear: “My whole involvement with this tour started with a completely cold phone call…Mike and I had dated, broken up, and he put me up for the tour, coz they needed a violin player at the last second…They needed someone and he said , ‘call Merritt, she’ll be psyched to do it…And they called me and they said, ‘would you like to go on a summer tour with John Mellencamp? We’re leaving soon. I was shocked and then I quit my job and we were off and running.”

“The idea for the tour came to light and was a vague notion on what Woodie Guthrie had done when he would go and play in the fields for the workers in California,” Mellencamp explains. For the most part, the free performances featured songs he liked, not tunes he had written. While the free gigs were very well received by the public and the crowds grew larger at each appearance, the authorities in Detroit were less than pleased when they learned about Mellencamp’s concert there. Harry Sandler was even told they would get arrested if they played there. While many cops showed up at the concert, fortunately, everything stayed peaceful and nobody was arrested. The documentary can be watched here. Time for some music!

Let’s kick it off with In My Time of Dying, a traditional gospel tune that has been recorded by numerous artists. Blind Willie Johnson’s recording from December 1927 is the first known published version.

Here’s Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, which first appeared on his eighth studio album John Wesley Harding from December 1967. The most famous version of the song was recorded around the same time by Jimi Hendrix for Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by The Jimi Hendrix Experience released in October 1968.

Next up: Street Fighting Man, The Rolling Stones’ classic that first appeared as a U.S. single in August 1968, ahead of the Beggars Banquet album from December of the same year.

Let’s do two more: Here’s Cut Across Shorty, which was first popularized by Eddie Cochran in March 1960 as a rock & roll style tune. It’s been covered by various other artists including Rod Stewart, Faces and, obviously, John Mellencamp.

The last track I’d like to highlight is a Mellencamp original: Pink Houses, which he recorded for his seventh studio album Uh-Huh that appeared under his transitional artist name John Cougar Mellencamp in October 1983. In this take, Merritt Lear got to sing the first verse.

I really dig John Mellencamp’s transition from his early straight heartland rock years to an artist who embraces a more stripped back roots and Americana sound. As such, the prominence of the accordion and the fiddle on these Good Samaritan song renditions are right up my alley.

Here’s the full track list of the album:

1.     Small Town
2.     Oklahoma Hills
3.     In My Time Of Dying
4.     Captain Bobby Stout
5.     Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)
6.     All Along The Watchtower
7.     The Spider And The Fly
8.     Early Bird Café
9.     Hey Gyp
10.   Street Fighting Man
11.   Cut Across Shortly
12.   Pink Houses

While cynics might dismiss the Good Samaritan Tour as a PR stunt, John Mellencamp doesn’t strike me as the kind of artist who would that. Sure, I guess he didn’t mind the buzz his free summer tour generated. But Mellencamp, one of the co-founders of Farm Aid, is a person who supports social causes, so I buy that his primary motivation for the free concerts was to give back to his fans.

Sources: Wikipedia; John Mellencamp website; YouTube

Great Music Isn’t Quite Dead Yet

Four coinciding releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry Cooder, John Mellencamp and Glenn Fry

Yesterday was a great day in music as far as I’m concerned. When was the last time you can remember new releases from four great artists coming out the same day? While admittedly sometimes I don’t recall what I did the previous day, I really couldn’t tell you. Sadly, when checking iTunes for new music, I usually see stuff I don’t care about, so why even bother? Well, part of me refuses to give up hope that amid all the mediocre crap that dominates the charts these days, I might find something I actually dig. This time I surely did, with new releases from Roger Daltrey, Ry CooderJohn Mellencamp and Glenn Frey.

Since I just wrote about Daltrey’s new single How Far from his upcoming solo album As Long As I Have You, I’m only briefly acknowledging it in this post. Based on this tune and the previously released title track, his new record surely looks very promising. It’s set to come out June 1, tough I have a feeling we might see a third single leading up to its release – really looking forward to this one!

Ry Cooder_The Prodigal Son

Ry Cooder’s new album The Prodigal Son is his 17th solo record and first new release in six years. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on his music – in fact, I know far too little about it. But here’s what I know. I’ve yet to hear bad music from this virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and I know good music when I hear it. And this it, baby, great music – plain and simple – no need to over-analyze!

The Prodigal Son is a beautiful collection of roots and gospel music. Eight of the 11 tunes are covers from artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Alfred Reed and Carter Stanley. All of the reviews I read noted the album represents a return all the way to the beginning of Cooder’s 50-year recording career. Asked by the Los Angeles Times why he decided to make a gospel-focused record, Cooder said, “In these times, all I can say, empathy is good, understanding is good, a little tolerance is good. We have these dark forces of intolerance and bigotry that are growing back…The gospel music has a nice way of making these suggestions about empathy…Plus I like the songs, I have to admit.” Well said!

Here’s a nice clip of the Blind Willie tune Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right – sadly, this couldn’t be more timely! Watching the maestro at work live in the studio is a real treat. By the way, the drummer is Cooder’s son Joachim, who has collaborated with him on several records and tours in the past and apparently was an important catalyst for the new record.

More frequent readers of the blog know that I’m a huge fan of John Mellencamp. His new release Plain Spoken: From The Chicago Theatre is a companion to a concert film that debuted on Netflix on February 1st. It captures a show Mellencamp performed at the landmark venue on October 25, 2016. The set features country singer Carlene Carter, with whom he has been on the road for several years and recorded the excellent 2017 collaboration album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies.

John Mellencamp_Plain Spoken From The Chicago Theatre

The new DVD-CD set includes the original version of the Netflix film with commentary from Mellencamp throughout, a “non-commentary” version of the film, and a live CD of the concert. While I’ve only listened into some of the tunes from the CD via Apple Music, I certainly like what I’ve heard so far. Here’s a clip of Cherry Bomb, a track from the 1987 studio album The Lonesome Jubilee, one of my favorite Mellencamp records.

Last but not least, there’s Above The Clouds: The Collection, a new four-disc box set capturing the solo career of Glenn Frey. The set combines well known tunes like The Heat Is On, Smuggler’s Blues and You Belong To City with lesser known, deeper cuts and, perhaps most intriguingly, a copy of Longbranch Pennywhistle, a pre-Eagles 1969 album Frey recorded with J.D. Souther. The set also includes a DVD capturing footage from Frey gig in September 1992.

Glenn Frey_Above The Clouds Box Set

Admittedly, I had not been aware of Longbranch Pennywhistle, which according to Ultimate Class Rock until now had only been available on CD as an import. Frey and Souther also performed as a duo under that name, though it was a short-lived venture. Frey went on to co-found the Eagles in 1971, together with Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. Souther ended up co-writing some of the band’s best known tunes, such as Best Of My Love, Heartache Tonight and New Kid In Town. Here’s a clip of Run Boy, Run, one of the tracks from the Longbranch Pennywhistle album, which was written by Frey.

While Daltrey’s upcoming album is something to look forward to, I’m under no illusion that yesterday was an aberration. The days when great music releases were part of the mainstream are long gone. Still, why not enjoy the nice moment while it lasts!

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, NPR, John Mellencamp official website, USA Today, Ultimate Classic Rock, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Eric Clapton/461 Ocean Boulevard

1974 album marked Slowhand’s triumphant return to music after three-year heroin addiction

461 Ocean Boulevard represented a clear break for Eric Clapton from his hardcore blues rock-oriented days with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominos. I’m a fan of all the aforementioned bands but also dig the more laid back side Clapton showed on his second studio solo album, which was released in July 1974.

It’s important to remember this record came after a three-year hiatus during which Clapton had overcome a heroin addiction. As the great documentary Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars tells, he tragically ended up replacing heroin with alcohol before finally getting sober in 1987. Clapton had also grown weary about his previous status as a “guitar god,” so he was clearly looking for a new start.

The album opens with a cover of Motherless Children, a blues standard that was first recorded by American gospel blues singer Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. The sped up beat gives the tune a great groove. I also like Clapton’s slide guitar playing.

The second track Give Me Strength is one of three tunes, for which Clapton has writing credits. I dig the dobro he plays on that track, something that at the time of the album’s release seemed to irritate a Rolling Stone critic, who also noted, “What’s disturbing is not that Clapton plays differently, but that he plays so little.” In my humble opinion, knowing when and how to show restraint is part of being a great guitarist.

Willie And The Hand Jive is one of two songs that were also released separately as singles. The tune was written by Johnny Otis and first appeared in 1958. Like the original version, Clapton’s take has a cool Bo Diddley beat.

The second and undoubtedly much better known single from the record is I Shot The Sheriff, a nice cover of the Bob Marley tune. I really like the slightly funky guitar sound and the keyboard part on this recording. It became a big hit for Clapton, hitting no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, and also topping the charts in Canada and New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, years later Marley told Clapton he liked his cover.

Next up: Let It Grow, which is my personal favorite on the album and another tune written by Clapton and on which he plays the dobro. Yvonne Elliman sings backup vocals. Before joining Clapton’s band in 1974, she had played Mary Magdalene in the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar. Elliman also scored a hit with If I Can’t Have You in 1978, which became part of the soundtrack of the motion picture Saturday Night Fever. Music critics noted the chord progression of Let It Grow is similar to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, something Clapton himself acknowledged. I wonder whether those same critics also worried about the similarity between Stairway and Taurus, the instrumental by Spirit.

The last track I’d like to call out is Steady Rollin’ Man, a song written by Robert Johnson, one of Clapton’s influences. In fact, 30 years later, he would record Me And Mr. Johnson, an entire album dedicated to the delta blues artist. This is another example where Clapton took an old blues tune and gave it new life and a nice groove by speeding it up.

While 461 Ocean Boulevard received mixed reviews from music critics, it became one of Clapton’s most successful albums with strong chart performances in the U.S. and many other countries. In August 1974, it was awarded Gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America. And, oh yes, it’s also listed at no. 409 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 Albums Of All Time – the same publication whose critic ripped it apart when it originally appeared.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the musicians who helped Clapton record the album. Some critics felt they were less than capable – yes, there was no John Mayall, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce or Duane Allman, but to say that Clapton’s band essentially was mediocre is simply ridiculous, in my opinion.

The musicians included Dick Sims (keyboards), George Terry (guitar, vocals), Carl Radle (bass), Jamie Oldacker (drums, percussion), Al Jackson Jr. (drums on Give Me Strength and Albhy Galuten (synthesizer, piano, clavichord). In addition to Elliman, Tom Bernfield and Marcy Levy were backing vocalists.

Last but not least, the album was produced by studio wizard Tom Dowd. This certainly helps explain the great sound.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube