When I read John Mellencamp was going to bring his Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, my decision to get a ticket didn’t take long. It’s a 1.5-hour drive from my house, and I’ve driven longer to see a great show! The only question was, would it be R.O.C.K. or more of the stripped down Americana Mellencamp has gradually embraced since 1986’s The Lonesome Jubilee. It was definitely the former!
When you name your tour Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, it’s appropriate to add some country flavor to the mix. With Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, Mellencamp invited two pretty amazing ladies of the genre. And I say that as somebody who hardly listens to country music. Carter essentially has been touring with Mellencamp for the past three years and is also prominently featured on his last album.
Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, opened up the show all by herself, alternating between guitar and the piano – frankly, she didn’t need anything else! Except for one tune, Damascus Road, which she wrote for Sad Clowns, I didn’t know her songs. But this lady drew me in pretty quickly, so it didn’t matter whether or not I was familiar with her music.
Looking now at her set thanks to Setlist.fm, in addition to the above excellent Sad Clowns tune, Carter played five songs from her previous four studio albums. This included Every Little Thing from 1993’s Little Love Letters, which peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks and appears to be one of her biggest hits. To me the highlight of Carter’s set was Lonesome Valley 2003, one of two tracks she performed on keyboards from her most recent solo album Carter Girl (2014). It’s a heartfelt song about her mother. Here’s a clip of the studio version, which features Vince Gill. Last night, Carter delivered it just as beautifully, if not with even more passion.
Next came country music legend Emmylou Harris. Over her impressive 45-year-plus career, she has received numerous accolades, including 13 Grammys and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. While similar to Carter, Harris is not an artist I usually listen to, I thought she delivered a powerful performance as well. And as somebody who recently turned 70, she also looked great!
Again, I have to peek at Setlist.fm to elaborate on Harris’ 11-song set. She dug deeply into her catalogue, ranging from Luxury Liner and Pancho & Lefty, both from Luxury Liner (1976) to My Name Is Emmett Till, from Hard Bargain, her last solo studio album released in 2011. Interestingly, Harris hardly played any of her big hits, except for Born to Run (Cimarron, 1981), which peaked at no. 3 on the U.S. country charts. In my opinion, her most powerful performance was Emmett Till. The tune recalls the true story of a 14-year-old African-American, who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after allegedly offending the 21-year-old wife of a small grocery store owner. Here’s a clip of the song, which supposedly was captured during a 2012 live performance.
Then it was John Mellencamp’s turn. Of course, as a huge fan of the Indiana rocker for more than 30 years, I didn’t wait until the concert to get an idea what he is going to play – once again, bless Setlist.fm!
The first thing I noticed was the set only includes three songs from Sad Clowns, namely Grandview, My Soul’s Got Wings and Easy Target – a surprise, given Mellencamp named the tour after the album. I also saw there are plenty of tunes from his early, more rock-oriented phase, which represents the Mellencamp I came to love initially. Given his full-blown embrace of acoustic roots music in more recent years, I figured, ‘okay, so maybe he’ll do stripped down versions of his rockers.’ Nope!
From the opening bars of his first tune Lawless Times, included on the 2014 studio album Plain Spoken, Mellencamp made it crystal clear he wasn’t stripping down anything – in fact, most of the 18-song set rocked pretty vigorously! Unlike Carter and Harris, he also didn’t shy away from playing many of his biggest hits he scored over the last 35 years. It made for a dynamite performance!
Mellencamp covered songs from 10 albums, ranging from 1982’s American Fool (Jack & Diane) to Sad Clowns (Grandview, My Soul’s Got Wings and Easy Target). In addition to Sad Clowns, Mellencamp also played three tunes from each Scaregrow (Minutes to Memories, Rain On the Scaregrow and Small Town), The Lonesome Jubilee (Check It Out, Paper in Fire, Cherry Bomb) and Uh-Huh (Crumblin’ Down, Authority Song and Pink Houses). The remaining tracks included John Cockers (Life, Death, Love and Freedom, 2014), Pop Singer (Big Daddy, 1989) and a great cover of the Robert Johnson song Stones In My Passway (Trouble No More, 2003).
Pretty much every song Mellencamp performed was awesome, so it is hard to highlight a few tunes only. So I guess I go by some of my all-time favorites. First up is Small Town. Here’s clip I found from an earlier Sad Clowns show. Frankly, last night’s version seemed to rock a lot more! Of course, while smartphone video cameras have become pretty good, they do have their limitations.
Next up: Grandview together with Carter. She and Mellencamp just sound great together. They also visibly have good chemistry! 🙂 Immediately following is My Soul’s Got Wings, the only song in the show where Mellencamp is joined by both Carter and Harris – pretty cool!
Another tune I cannot leave out is Pink Houses. If I had to name my most favorite performance of the show, it would have to be this track. Again, Carter and Mellencamp just sound awesome together!
Last but not least, the set’s and show’s closer, Cherry Bomb.
This post would not be complete without acknowledging the top-notch musicians who backed up Harris (The Red Dirt Boys), as well as Mellencamp’s tour band: Andy York (guitar), Mike Wanchic (guitar), John Gunnell (bass), Dane Clark (drums), Miriam Sturm (violin), Troye Kennett (keyboards and accordion). While each of these musicians is outstanding, I’d like to call out Sturm in particular, an out-of-this-world violinist. If you met her in the street, you’d never guess she’s a true rock & roll star!
In fact, at some point during the set, Sturm played Overture together with Kennett on accordion. The beautiful classical piece is the opening track from Mellencamp’s 1986 studio album Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Among others, the instrumental includes part of the melody of Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First), a track from the same album. Sturm and Kennett extended the piece by adding a section from I Need a Lover, an early Mellencamp tune from 1979’s John Cougar. And since it is so amazing, here’s a clip I luckily found.
Last night’s show undoubtedly was one of the best concerts I’ve attended in recent years. If there is perhaps one thing I missed a bit, ironically, it was the lack of stripped down songs – tt really only came down to Easy Target and Jack & Diane. I say “ironically,” since while I’ve always loved Mellencamp’s 80s rockers, it did take me a while to fully appreciate the more acoustic, more bare bones type of music he has adopted in more recent years. Now I’ve also become a fan of the latter. For example, Indigo Sunset from Sad Clowns would have been a terrific addition to the set.
Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube