My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part III

The concerts that moved me

The third installment of my year-in-review feature looks back on the many great concerts this year I had the fortune to see in 2017. It was a nice mix of major and semi-professional acts, including various excellent tribute bands. Following are highlights from my favorite shows.

U2, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J., June 30

After I had listened to U2 for more than 30 years, I finally saw the Irish rock band during their Joshua Tree Tour 2017. In a nutshell, seeing them perform what I think is their best album live in its entirety, along with many other great songs, was simply epic!  You can read more about the show here. In addition, following is a clip of Red Hill Mining Town.

John Mellencamp, Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, July 7

This was the second time I saw John Mellencamp after close to 20 years. Since the gig was part of a tour supporting his most recent album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which features Carlene Carter, I wasn’t sure what to expect: 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! While his voice has changed quite a bit since the days of Jack And Diane, Pink Houses, Small Town and Paper In Fire, he still delivered many of his ’80s with great dynamic. More about this great show, which also featured Emmylou Harris as a guest, is here. And for instant gratification, you can watch this nice clip of Pink Houses. Mellencamp’s and Carter’s voices go beautifully together!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’, F.M. Kirby Center of the Performing Arts, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., August 10

If I would have to name one show as the highlight, I guess it would have to be this concert. Seeing blues dynamos Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ bring the good time to the heart of Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley and doing it with such joy was simply priceless. Also remarkable was opening act Jontavious Willis, a 21-year-old country blues artist from Greenville, Ga., who with just an acoustic guitar blew the roof off the place. I previously reviewed the show here. Following is a clip of the Sleepy John Estes tune Diving Duck Blues. The chemistry between Mahal and Mo’ is just amazing.

Deep Purple, Alice Cooper and Edgar Winter, PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J., August 28

It’s hard to believe it took me more than 30 years after I had first listened to Machine Head to see my favorite hard rock band Deep Purple live. Together with Mr. Shock Rock Alice Cooper and high-energy blues rocker Edgar Winter, it made for three-and-a-half hours of furious rock and possibly some additional hearing loss! You can read more about my experience here. And here is a clip of one of Deep Purple’s signature tunes,  Highway Star.

Outstanding Tribute Bands

I’ve also seen a number of excellent tribute bands this year. Full-time professional acts included RAIN and Get The Led Out, tributes to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, respectively. My review of the shows are here and here. Following is a clip of RAIN performing Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.

And here is Get The Led Out killing it with Rock And Roll.

Two other outstanding tribute bands I like to highlight are Decade and The Royal Scam, tributes to Neil Young and Steely Dan, respectively. In fact, I was so much impressed with these bands that I saw them more than once – Decade three times and The Royal Scam twice. Here is my review of a Decade gig in late October. To get an idea, check out this clip of Ohio.

One of The Royal Scam’s concerts I visited was a great gig at an intimate jazz club in October. I posted about it here. The following clip of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number was captured at an outdoor performance during the summer, the first time I saw these guys.

Cool music festivals

Last but not least I’d like to acknowledge three great music festivals I attended. It started with a British Invasion spectacle in Atlantic City in June, which featured The Glimmer Twins and Who’s Next, tributes to The Rolling Stones and The Who, respectively, as well as Britain’s Finest, another tribute band to The Beatles. I posted about the event here. A nice promo clip of Who’s Next is below.

In September, I visited two additional festivals, which are conducted annually. First up was the Rock The Farm Festival in Seaside Heights, N.J., also cleverly called Faux-Chella, the concert that never was. In addition to the above mentioned The Glimmer Twins and Decade, the festival featured tributes to Carole King, Johnny Cash, Grateful Dead, The Beatles (yet another tribute band!), The Doors, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. Here is my review of the 10-hour rock marathon. And following is a nice highlights reel of the Pink Floyd tribute, which is called Echoes.

Finally, there was Colts Neck Rockfest. The two-day event presented close to 30 bands from New Jersey. Unlike Rock The Farm, this festival focused less on tribute acts. Instead, most of the performers were cover bands, while the remaining acts mixed original material with covers. My post about the great event is here. Following is a clip of Moroccan Sheepherders performing Feeling Stronger Every Day by Chicago.

The last and final installment of this year-in-feature will reflect on some of the great artists who passed in 2017.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me

Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)

Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.

Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)

John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.

Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.

Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)

Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.

Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!

New music from young blues rock artists

There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.

Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!

Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.

Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!

Anniversary editions of standout albums

As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.

Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.

The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.

Other notable new releases

It is impossible to cover all new 2017 music I liked, even with breaking down this year-in-review feature into four parts. But at least, I’d like to mention other albums that are noteworthy to me: Ryan Adams/Prisoner (Feb 17), Deep Purple/inFinite (Apr 7), John Mayer/The Search For Everything (Apr 14), Sheryl Crow/Be Myself (April 21), Little Steven/Soulfire (May 19), Chuck Berry/Chuck (Jun 9), Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Jun 16), Alice Cooper/Paranormal (July 28), Steve Winwood/Greatest Hits Live (Sep 1), Ringo Starr/Give More Love (Sep 15), The Church/Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Oct 6), Bob Seger/I Knew You When (Nov 17), U2/Songs Of Experience (Dec 1) and The Rolling Stones/On Air (Dec 1).

The next part of this year-in-review feature will look at some of concerts I attended this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: October 7

1951: John Mellencamp, one of my longtime favorite music artists, was born in Seymour, Ind. He started his recording career in 1976 with Chestnut Street Incident, an album of mostly covers, released under Johnny Cougar. The stage name was imposed by his manager at the time, who felt the name Mellencamp was too hard to market. The record flopped anyway. But luckily Mellencamp soldiered on and has released 22 additional studio albums to date. The first record credited to his given name instead of John Cougar Mellencamp, the name he used on most of his ’80s albums, was 1991’s Whenever We Wanted. Starting with the excellent Lonesome Jubilee (1987), Mellencamp gradually moved away from straight rock to more stripped down roots-oriented rock. Here’s a clip of Cherry Bomb from the 1987 album. Happy Birthday!

1960: Elvis Presley recorded Flaming Star, the title song to the soundtrack for his 1960 motion picture. Written by Syd Wayne and Sherman Edwards, the track was also included on an EP in February 1961. It peaked at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100. While Presley starred in numerous, mostly mediocre movies, this Western film is considered to be one of his best acting performances. I used to be a huge Elvis fan in my early teens and Flaming Star was one of my favorite tunes. While I’m no longer as crazy about Elvis, I still think he had a great voice and was a terrific performer, especially in his early days.

1963: The Rolling Stones recorded I Wanna Be Your Man, which became their second single released November 1, 1963. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, this Beatles song was primarily written by McCartney. The Stones’ cover, which appeared prior to the release of The Beatles’ version, climbed to no. 12 on the British chart, giving them an early hit. The tune’s characteristic features are Brian Jones’ slide guitar and Bill Wyman’s driving bass, giving it more pep than the original.

1967: American music producer and promoter Sid Bernstein, who had first brought The Beatles to the U.S. in February 1964 and also was involved in their first Shea Stadium appearance in August 1965, tried to get them back for a third time, offering one million dollars. But The Beatles had grown tired of Beatlemania and decided to retire from touring in late August 1966, so they rejected the offer. It’s a reassuring example money can’t buy everything.

Sidney Bernstein

1969: The Youngbloods’ version of Get Together was certified gold. Composed by American singer-songwriter Chet Powers, the Kingston Trio originally recorded the song as Let’s Get Together in 1964. Jefferson Airplane included a cover on their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, released in August 1966. But the best known and most successful version was recorded by The Youngbloods and first released in July 1967. Initially, it only became a minor hit for the band. Things changed when the tune was used in a radio public service announcement from the National Conference of Christians and Jews calling for brotherhood. The song was reissued in June 1969 and climbed to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, This Day in Music, YouTube

When Covers Are Just As Much Fun As Originals

A playlist of some of my favorite remakes

Lately, I’m somehow in the mood of compiling lists: first car songs, then train tunes and now remakes. Given how much I enjoy listening to great covers, it’s a surprise I didn’t do this list first!

In general, remakes I like fall into two categories: A version that changes the character of a song, essentially turning it into a new tune. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Joe Cocker’s version of The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Or it simply can be a remake of a tune that stays true to its original – nothing wrong with that, especially if it’s a great song! One terrific example I came across recently is Roger McGuinn’s cover of If I Needed Someone, one of my favorite Beatles tunes. I know, again the Fab Four – I just can’t help it!

Obviously, it won’t come as a big surprise that both of the above tunes are on my list. Here is the entire compilation.

With a Little Help From My Friends/Joe Cocker

Not only credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney by actually also written collaboratively by the two, With a Little Help From My Friends first appeared in May 1967 on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was one of only a handful of Beatles tunes featuring Ringo Starr on lead vocals. Cocker’s version came out two years later as the title song of his debut album.

Love Hurts/Nazareth

Written by American songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, Love Hurts was first recorded by The Everly Brothers in July 1960. In 1975, Scottish hard rock band Nazareth turned the tune into an epic power ballad, including it on their sixth studio album Hair of the Dog. It’s another great example of a remake that completely changed the character of the original tune.

Under the Boardwalk/John Mellencamp

Under the Boardwalk was first recorded by The Drifters and released as a single in June 1964. The song was created by songwriters Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick. Perhaps the best known cover of the tune is from The Rolling Stones, which was included on their second U.S. record 12 X 5 released in October 1964. While I like the Stones version, I think John Mellencamp did an even better remake for his 1999 studio album Rough Harvest.

Pinball Wizard/Elton John

Pinball Wizard is one of my all-time favorite tunes from The Who. Written by Pete Townsend, it was released as a single in March 1969 and also included on the Tommy album that appeared two months thereafter. The one thing I always felt about The Who’s version is that it ended somewhat prematurely. Enter Elton John and his dynamite, extended cover for the rock opera’s 1975 film adaption.

Stand By Me/John Lennon

One of the most beautiful ballads of the 60s, Stand By Me was written by Ben E. King, together with the songwriter powerhouse of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The tune was first released by King as a single in 1961 and also later included on his 1962 studio album Don’t Play That Song. One of my favorite remakes is John Lennon’s version, which he included on his sixth studio album Rock ‘n’ Roll released in February 1975.

If I Needed Someone/Roger McGuinn

Written by George Harrison, If I Needed Someone was included on The Beatles’ sixth studio album Rubber Soul from 1965. Harrison played his Rickenbacker 360/12 to record the tune, which he had first used the previous year during the motion picture A Hard Day’s Night. That’s where Roger McGuinn for the first time heard the beautiful sound of the 12-string electric guitar. He decided to use it for his own music, which resulted in The Byrds’ signature jingle jangle sound. Given this inspiration, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that McGuinn ended up recording a cover of the tune. It was included on his 2004 studio record Limited Edition.

Proud Mary/Ike & Tina Turner

Proud Mary was written by the great John Fogerty and first released by Creedence Clearwater Revival in early 1969, both as a single and on their second studio album Bayou Country. Then in 1971, Ike & Tina Turner recorded an amazing remake. It appeared as a single and was included on the album Working Together. The cover, which became their biggest hit, is another great example of how a remake can become a completely new song.

Light My Fire/José Feliciano

Credited to all four members of The Doors – Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, John Densmore and Ray Manzarek – Light My Fire appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from January 1967. It was also released as a single in April that year. I’ve always loved the organ part on that tune. And then there is of course the cover from José Feliciano, which as a guitarist I appreciate in particular. It appeared on 1968’s Feliciano!, his fourth studio record. Feliciano’s laid-back jazzy style to play the tune is exceptionally beautiful.

Runaway/Bonnie Raitt

Runaway is one of my favorite early 60s pop tunes. Written by Del Shannon and keyboarder Max Crook, it was first released as a single by Shannon in February 1961. The song was also included on his debut studio album Runaway with Del Shannon, which appeared in June that year. Bonnie Raitt, who I’ve admired for many years as an exceptional guitarist and songwriter, recorded a fantastic remake for her 1977 studio album Sweet Forgiveness.  I was fortunate enough to see this amazing lady last year. She is still on top of her game!

Hard to Handle/The Black Crowes

Hard to Handle is one of the many great tunes from Otis Redding, who co-wrote it with Al Bell and Allen Jones. It was released in June 1968, six months after Redding’s untimely death at age 26 in a plane crash. In 1990, The Black Crowes recorded a fantastic rock version of the song for their debut studio album Shake Your Money Maker, scoring their first no. 1 single on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks. It is perhaps the tune’s best known cover.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

John Mellencamp Made Philly’s Walls Come Crumblin’ Down

Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter added country power at Mann Center last night

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.

Carlene Carter

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!

Emmylou Harris

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!

John Mellencamp 1

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

Clips & Pix: John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter/Pink Houses

A Mellencamp classic from his 1983 studio album Uh-huh

Awesome clip of John Mellencamp’s Pink Houses performed together with Carlene Carter during a recent show from his ongoing Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour. While the song was written more than 30 years ago, its lyrics remain relevant in present-day America. I’m going the see the man in Philly this evening, so he’s very much on my mind!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

John Mellencamp Continues Stripped Down, Acoustic Approach On New Album

For “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” Mellencamp teamed up with Carlene Carter to create an album full of warm, stripped down roots music.

Initially, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was supposed to be a collection of spiritual country duets with Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. While prominently featuring Cash on duet vocals for five of the 13 songs, John Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album only includes one tune the two artists wrote together.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo. They started working together in 2012 in connection with Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a musical for which Mellencamp collaborated with author Stephen King and veteran producer T-Bone Burnett. He subsequently invited Cash to sing a song he had written as part of the music score for Ithaca, a drama motion picture released in Oct 2015 and directed by his then-girlfriend Meg Ryan. “That was when we became friends, when I went to Indiana and recorded with him and the guys this really cool song called Sugar Hill Mountain that’s in the movie,” Carter told Songfacts.

Carlene Carter

Carter also joined Mellencamp as the opening act on his extensive 2015-2016 tour in support of his previous album Plain Spoken. It was during that tour when the initial idea for Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was conceived. “It started out like ‘Look, lets go back and do an old country religious record,” Mellencamp said during an interview with Yahoo! News’ Katie Couric. “‘We’ll try to write songs that sound like those songs, but they’ll be new.’ And then it just kept evolving and evolving and evolving, and the songs that she was bringing and the songs that I was bringing – they weren’t so religious. I write a lot of sad songs, so it’s like Sad Clowns & Hillbillies – that’s where it came from.”

The album pretty much picks up where Mellencamp’s previous 2014 studio release Plain Spoken left off, featuring mostly acoustic, stripped down, front porch type roots music. This record is not for the multi-tasking generation; instead, it’s an invitation to sit down and listen. The album is also very different from Mellencamp’s ’80s rockers like Hurts So Good, Jack & Diane, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., which I dearly love and which attracted me to him in the first place. Of course, his departure from the straight rock sound these songs represent started a long time ago. It was 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee that for the first time introduced more traditional folk and country music instruments like accordion and fiddle to Mellencamp’s songs.

Martina McBride & John Mellencamp

The one exception that sounds more like vintage Mellencamp is Grandview, the album’s second and current single, for which Martina McBride is joining him on vocals. You could easily picture the tune on 1985’s Scarecrow or 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. That’s not a surprise – Mellencamp co-wrote it with his cousin Bobby Clark in the 1990s. He told the Indianapolis Star the current version “includes some vocals he recorded in the ’90s and some recorded this century.” The song also features Guns N’ Roses’ co-founder and former rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m not gonna deny it – I wouldn’t have minded, if Mellencamp had included one or more rockers like this one!

The opener Mobile Blue pretty much sets the tone for the album. The combination of violin (Miriam Sturm), Hammond-like keyboards (Troye Kinnett) and of course acoustic guitars, some mandolin-like, creates a beautiful, warm and rich sound. Written by American country singer-songwriter Mickey Newbury, the song is one of the two covers on the album. The other one is Early Bird Cafe, a folk song from Lane Tietgen, which was first recorded by the Jerry Hahn Brotherhood in 1970. Mellencamp saw that band in the early ’70s, has liked the song ever since, and has performed it solo on acoustic guitar on various occasions throughout his career.

John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter

Indigo Sunset is only tune co-written by both artists. Carter and Mellencamp alternate lead vocals. Her traditional country voice and his rougher instrument that briefly join toward the end of the song are a perfect match. Together with the great Hammond-like keyboard (not sure whether it’s an actual Hammond!) and the seductive violin sound, this makes the tune another standout on the album. Damascus Road is the only song Carter penned all by herself. With biblical-like references throughout the lyrics, it’s evident the tune reflects the record’s original idea.

The closer Easy Target presents Mellencamp with his most raspy voice – one review I can no longer find compared it to Tom Waits after he had cleared his throat! Mellencamp’s gravelly singing certainly fits the dark lyrics of the song, which addresses racism and income equality and was initially released on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration – certainly not a coincidence. An excerpt:

Here’s an easy target/With just one quiet pop/Shot to hell anyway/No reason to stop/In the streets and the gutters/The cotton fields in this land/Here’s an easy target/With a trigger in your hand/

So, Black lives matter/Who we tryin’ to kid/Here’s an easy target/Don’t matter, never did/Crosses burning/Such a long time ago/400 years and we still don’t let it go.

John Mellencamp

Unlike his previous three studio albums Plain Spoken (2014), No Better Than This (2010) and Life, Death, Love and Freedom (2008), which were produced T-Bone Burnett, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies was produced by Mellencamp. The album was recorded at his studio in Belmont Mall – funnily, as an NPR story pointed out, that studio is located in Nashville, except it’s Nashville, Ind., not Nashville, Tenn. The art work on the album’s front cover is from Mellencamp, who is also a painter. It was taken from Twelve Dreams, a painting he created in 2005.

Painting has become a very important aspect in Mellencamp’s life, which also impacts his songwriting. In the current print issue of Rolling Stone, he explained how songs come to him while being all by himself and painting in his Indiana compound. “A voice in my head will go, ‘OK, put your brush down and write these words down’…And I’ll be like, No, I don’t want to write a fucking song.’ Then the voice will go, ‘You better write it down, you idiot.’ Then I forget about it, and I find it and I go, ‘When did I write this?’ It’s a wonderful way of writing songs.”

For more on Grandview, Easy Target and Mellencamp’s upcoming tour in support of the album, see my previous post. And, of course, I couldn’t help myself – here’s a great clip of Carter and Mellencamp perfoming Indigo Sunset together live.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, Yahoo! News, Indianapolis Star, NPR, Rolling Stone, YouTube

 

Small Town Rocker Gearing Up For More R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.

Last week, John Mellencamp released the second single from his upcoming new album “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies,” which he will support with a U.S. tour this summer.

I’ve been a huge fan of John Mellencamp for many years. He’s one of my favorite rock singer-songwriters, along with Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. I always enjoy checking out his new music, and so far, I like what I’ve heard from his upcoming new album.

Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, which is set for release on April 28th, will be Mellencamp’s 23rd studio album. It features  country singer and songwriter Carlene Carter, the daughter of Johnny Cash’s second wife, June Carter. Carter was the opening act for Mellencamp’s last 2015-2016 tour that supported his previous studio album Plain Spoken.

On February 24, the second single from Sad Clowns & Hillbillies appeared. Grandview features country artist Martina McBride. The song is a bit more rock-oriented than much of Mellencamp’s music in recent years. It reminds me somewhat of the American Fool and Scaregrow albums from the 80s.

The first single from the new album, Easy Target, was released on January 19th. The timing on the eve of the Presidential inauguration was not a coincidence. Sung with a raspy voice, the bleak ballad touches on income disparities and mindless shootings of African Americans in the U.S. In a Yahoo! News interview with Katie Couric, Mellencamp characterized the song as “a reflection on the state of the country.”

For much of his now more than 40-year career, Mellencamp has voiced his political opinions through some of his songs, from his criticism of Ronald Reagan in the 80s to the Iraq war in 2003. Together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, he also started Farm Aid in 1985, which raises awareness of the importance of family farms and has organized concerts almost every year since then. The organization celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015.

Mellencamp was born in the small town of Seymour, Ind. on October 7, 1951. He still lives in Indiana to this day close to Bloomington on the shores of Lake Monroe.  According to the bio on his web site, Mellencamp was attracted to music at an early age and already was performing in local bars when he was 14.

Mellencamp’s recording career started in 1976 with the release of Chestnut Street Incident under the name of Johnny Cougar. His breakthrough came in 1979 with I Need a Lover from his third studio album John Cougar. Mellencamp’s fifth studio release American Fool brought broad commercial success. It reached no. 1 on Billboard’s album chart, held that position for nine weeks, and became the best-selling record of the year. The records includes the classics Hurts So Good and Jack & Diane.

One of my favorite Mellencamp albums is 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee. It blends rock with traditional folk and country instruments, creating a warm and rich sound. It was a new style for Mellencamp, which he would continue to embrace on many of his successive records. To me the standouts are Paper in Fire, Check It Out, Cherry Bomb and We Are the People. The album became one of Mellencamp’s most successful releases worldwide.

Apart from writing great songs over so many years, Mellencamp has also done some excellent covers. Two of my favorites are the Van Morrison tune Wild Night, included on the Dance Naked album (1994), and a fantastic version of The Drifters’ hit Under the Boardwalk from 1999’s Rough Harvest. For some reason, until recently, I had pretty much ignored that collection of alternate acoustic versions of Mellencamp tunes and some covers, until a good friend pointed it out. Another highlight on Rough Harvest is an unbelievable cover of Dylan’s Farewell Angelina.

Mellencamp’s summer tour will kick off in Denver on June 5 and after more than 20 gigs conclude on July 11 in Forest Hills, NY. In addition to Carlene Carter, the tour will feature Emmylou Harris and folk pop duo Lily & Madeleine. I saw Mellencamp once about 20 years ago – I believe somewhere in upstate New York. I would love to catch the show at Forest Hills Stadium, a great venue where I also saw The Who a few years ago.

Here’s a nice clip of Mellencamp and McBride performing Grandview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo! News, John Mellencamp web site, YouTube