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

Dylan by Others

A playlist of great Bob Dylan covers

The idea of putting together a playlist of great Bob Dylan covers came when I listened to Them and their fantastic version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. I have to give credit where credit is due. The impetus to revisit the Northern Irish garage rockers who launched the musical career of Van Morrison came from Max at PowerPop and his post about Them tune Mighty Like a Rose.

With so many artists having covered Dylan tunes, finding examples was very easy. The hard part was to limit the list to ten tracks, even though I deliberately focused on his ’60s albums for all but one track. I just couldn’t help it – Dylan’s early phase is the one I know and like the best!

Stevie Wonder/Blowin’ in the Wind

Kicking off this playlist is the great Stevie Wonder who included Blowin’ in the Wind on his studio album Up-Tight released in May 1966. His cover also came out separately as a single, yielding a No. 9 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Originally, Dylan recorded the track for his second studio album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from May 1963. I love how Wonder took a folk song and turned it into a beautiful soul tune.

Leon Russell/It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

When Leon Russell covers a tune, you just know you gonna get something great. It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall was included on his sophomore solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People that came out in May 1971. The tune is another track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Tracy Chapman/The Times They Are a-Changin’

Tracy Chapman’s version of the title track from Dylan’s third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ is one of my favorite renditions in this playlist. This is from a special concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden that took place on October 16, 1992 to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist. It was captured on a live double album appropriately titled The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration and released in August 1993. Dylan’s original recording first appeared in January 1964.

Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash/It Ain’t Me, Babe

I simply couldn’t leave out The Man in Black from this collection. Here’s Johnny Cash’s version of It Ain’t Me, Babe featuring June Carter Cash. It was included on The Essential Johnny Cash, a compilation that appeared in February 2002 to commemorate Cash’s 70th birthday. The original was part of Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth studio album from August 1964.

The Byrds/Mr. Tambourine Man

Not many other things get me as excited as the beautiful jingle-jangle sound of a Rickenbacker electric guitar. I also couldn’t think of anyone better in this context than Roger McGuinn and The Byrds who covered various Dylan tunes. My favorite remains Mr. Tambourine Man, their first single released in April 1965. The tune also was the title track of their debut album that came out in June of the same year. Dylan’s original was included on Bringing It All Back Home, his fifth studio album from March 1965.

Them/It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Now on to the tune that trigged the idea for the entire list. Them’s rendition of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue has to be one of the best Dylan covers of all time. They included it on their second album Them Again from January 1966, the last to feature Van Morrison who subsequently launched a solo career and remains active to this day. Dylan’s original is another track from Bringing It All Back Home.

Mick Ronson & David Bowie/Like a Rolling Stone

Until today, I had never heard of this version of Like a Rolling Stone, which appeared on Mick Ronson’s final solo album Heaven and Hull from May 1994. For this tune, the ex-Spiders From Mars guitarist teamed up with the former band’s frontman David Bowie. What a cool rendition! Dylan first recorded the track for Highway 61 Revisited released in August 1965. The maestro’s sixth studio album remains my favorite.

Joe Cocker/Just Like a Woman

A covers playlist definitely has to feature who perhaps is the ultimate master of the cover: Joe Cocker. His take of Just Like a Woman was included on his debut With a Little Help From My from My Friends released in May 1969. That album’s title track may well be the ultimate rock cover. As for Dylan, he first recorded the tune for his seventh studio album Blonde on Blonde from June 1966.

Jimi Hendrix/All Along the Watchtower

This next tune was another must to feature. Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower, which appeared on Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, just is absolutely killer! No disrespect to Bob Dylan, who after all penned the song, but after listening to Hendrix, one could be forgiven to forget about the original. Admittedly, I had known this cover for many years before I first heard Dylan’s rendition, which he included on his eighth studio album John Wesley Harding released in December 1967.

Indigo Girls/Tangled Up in Blue

I’d like to wrap things up with a beautiful cover of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, Tangled Up in Blue. It first appeared on his 15th studio album Blood on the Tracks from January 1975. In October 1995, Atlanta folk rock duo Indigo Girls released a live album titled 1200 Curfews, which features this incredible eight-minute version of the Dylan gem.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Playing for Change – Reimaging a World Connected by Music

The other day, I came across an amazing video clip featuring Robbie Robertson and a bunch of well-known and to me unknown, yet pretty talented other musicians from all over the world, playing The Weight, one of my favorite tunes by The Band. At first, I only paid attention to their great version of the iconic song and ignored the chiron at the beginning and the end of the clip that notes “Playing for Change.” Then, I noticed other video clips on YouTube, which were also put together by Playing for Change. Finally, I got curious. Who or what is Playing for Change?

It didn’t take long to find their website, which describes their story as follows: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music… Playing For Change was born in 2002 as a shared vision between co-founders, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, to hit the streets of America with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of inspiration and the heartbeat of the people. This musical journey resulted in the award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

PFC Co-Founders
PFC co-founders Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke

In 2005, Mark Johnson was walking in Santa Monica, California, when he heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” Roger had so much soul and conviction in his voice, and Mark approached him about performing “Stand By Me” as a Song Around the World. Roger agreed, and when Mark returned with recording equipment and cameras he asked Roger, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Roger replied, “Man I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people.” Ever since that day the Playing For Change crew has traveled the world recording and filming musicians, creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.

Creating Songs Around the World inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey and form the Playing For Change Band. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language. Songs Around The World The PFC Band is now touring the world and spreading the message of love and hope to audiences everywhere.

I realize the above may embellish things a bit; still, PFC sounds like an intriguing concept. They also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded through donations and supports arts and music programs for children around the world. Based on the foundation’s website, it looks like a legitimate organization. That being said, this isn’t an endorsement. Let’s get back to what originally brought me here – recorded musicians all over the world performing the same song and everything being neatly put together in pretty compelling video clips. Before getting to the above mentioned Robbie Roberson clip, let’s take a look at some of PFC’s other videos.

Walking Blues (Son House)

Walking Blues was written and first recorded by delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues musicians recorded their own versions. This clip features Kevin Roosevelt Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, along with other musicians from Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Morocco. Apparently, the clip was put together in honor of Johnson’s birthday. Check it out!

Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)

Written by Bob Marley, Soul Rebel is the opener to Soul Rebels, the second studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which appeared in December 1970. This clip features Bunny Wailer, an original member of the Wailers, French guitarist Manu Chao and Jamaican reggae singer Bushman, along with other musicians from Jamaica, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina and the U.S. Feel free to groove along!

Listen to the Music (Tom Johnston)

Listen to the Music is a classic by The Doobie Brothers from their second studio album Toulouse Street released in July 1972. It was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the band’s founding members. Apart from Johnston and fellow Doobies Patrick Simmons and John McFee, the clip features other musicians from Venezuela, India, Brazil, Lebanon, Japan, Argentina, Senegal, Congo, South Africa and the U.S., including a gospel choir from Mississippi. This is just a joy to watch!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

While perhaps best known by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along the Watchtower was written by Bob Dylan. He first recorded it for John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album from December 1967. Check out this riveting take featuring Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, John Densmore of The Doors and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, along with other musicians from Italy, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Niger, Ghana, India, Japan, Mali and the U.S. The latter include singers and dancers from the Lakota, a native American tribe that is part of the Great Sioux Nation. This is just mind-boggling to watch!

The Weight (Robbie Robertson)

And finally, here comes the crown jewel that inspired the post: The Weight written by Robbie Robertson, and first recorded for the debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. This clip was co-produced by PFC co-founder Mark Johnson and Robbie’s son Sebastian Johnson to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song. And it’s quite a star-studded affair: In addition to Robertson, the clip features Ringo Starr, blues guitarist Marcus King, roots rockers Larkin Poe and country-rock guitarist Lucas Nelson, along with other musicians from Italy, Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica – what a beautiful tribute to this great tune. Just watch the smile on Robertson’s face at the end. He knows how figgin’ awesome this came out – priceless!

PFC clearly has their go-to musicians in each country, and they’re not hobby musicians. Based on PFC’s website, all musicians are professionals who appear to be recognized within their countries. While as such one could argue PFC doesn’t seem to use amateur/ hobby musicians, it doesn’t take away anything of the concept’s beauty, in my view. Most of their videos capture songs performed by individual artists from different countries or by the PFC band. But it’s the song-around-the-world videos I find most impressive. You can watch all of PFC’s clips on their YouTube channel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Playing For Change website; Playing for Change Foundation website; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: December 27

You’d think the time between the Christmas holiday and New Year would be dead when it comes to music. At least I didn’t expect to find much when I checked my usual sources for this feature. Well, it turns out that at least for December 27, the above notion is not exactly true.

1963: In a story titled What Songs The Beatles Sang William Mann, music critic of the UK newspaper The Times wrote, “The outstanding English composers of 1963 must seem to have been John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the talented young musicians from Liverpool whose songs have been sweeping the country since last Christmas, whether performed by their own group, the Beatles, or by the numerous other teams of English troubadours that they also supply with songs.” Only two days thereafter, Sunday Times music critic Richard Buckle kicked it up a few notches, proclaiming Lennon and McCartney were “the greatest composers since Beethoven.” Even as a die-hard fan of The Beatles, I have to say that Buckle may have had a few too many eggnogs before the wrote this!

Backstage At Beatles Christmas Show

1967: Bob Dylan released his eighth studio record, John Wesley Harding. After three electric rock-focused albums – Bringing It All Back Home (March 1965), Highway 61 Revisited (August 1965) and Blonde On Blonde (May 1966) – Dylan returned to acoustic and roots music on this album, which was recorded in Nashville. John Wesley Harding was liked by critics and fans alike. It hit no. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and no. 2 on the Billboard 200. Only less than three months after it had appeared, the album was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Among others, John Wesley Harding includes All Along The Watchtower, which Jimi Hendrix widely popularized with his recording the following year. Here’s a clip of a Dylan live performance, which apparently was captured during a show in Italy in 1984.

1969: Led Zeppelin II, the English rock band’s second studio album, hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200. Released on October 22 that year, it was Led Zeppelin’s first record to top the charts in the U.S. and the UK. The album also became a big seller. On November 15, 1999, it was certified 12 times Platinum by RIAA. This album includes gems, such as Whole Lotta Love, The Lemon Song, Heartbreaker, Ramble On, Moby Dick and Thank You, one of my favorite acoustic Zep tunes.

1975: The Faces, one of the great British rock bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s officially called it quits. Lead vocalist Rod Stewart, who already had released six albums under his name and scored a big international hit with Sailing a few months earlier, decided to entirely focus on his solo career. Guitarist Ronnie Wood already had started recording and touring with The Rolling Stones and became an official member in February 1976. Bassist Ronnie Lane went on to form his own band, Slim Chance, while drummer Kenney Jones eventually joined The Who in November 1978, following the death of Keith Moon. Here’s a cool clip of a live performance of Stay With Me. If you ever doubted that Stewart once was a kick-ass rock & roll singer, check it out.

1980: Double Fantasy, the album credited to John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, where it would stay for eight weeks, while the record’s lead single Just Like Starting Over started a five-week run as no. 1 on the singles chart. Undoubtedly, the remarkable chart performance was driven by Lennon’s tragic death on December 8 that year, when he was shot at the entrance to his Manhattan apartment building by Mark David Chapman, an apparently mentally deranged former Beatles fan. Initially, Double Fantasy had been poorly received. While I’m not particularly fond of Ono’s songs, I’ve always thought the album includes some of Lennon’s greatest tunes of his solo period. Here’s a clip of one of my favorites, Watching The Wheels.

Sources: The Beatles Bible, This Day in Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, Wikipedia, YouTube