It’s That Time of the Year Again: Summer Concert Season

From rock to roots music to blues to hard rock and shock rock, it’s all in the mix for the next few months

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To readers of the blog and folks who know me it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I love going to concerts. I can barely wait until the end of June when my summer concert season kicks off. Following is a preview of shows I’m currently planning to see.

U2: The Joshua Tree Tour 2017, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, June 29

Even though I’ve listened to U2 since the early ’80s, I’ve never seen them live. They have been on my bucket list for a long time. And what better occasion to catch them than during their 2017 tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, their fifth studio album and probably my favorite U2 record. The tour, which includes North America and Europe, kicked off on May 12 in Vancouver, Canada and will conclude in Brussels, Belgium on August 1. “My show” will be the second night at MetLife and the 20th date.

Rolling Stone, which covered the U.S. tour opener in Seattle on May 14, called the show “epic.” The set kicked off with Sunday Bloody Sunday and featured 16 tracks, including all songs from The Joshua Tree, played in the same order than on the album. U2 also played two encores with seven additional songs. For the final Joshua Tree tune, Mothers of the Disappeared, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder joined U2, together with Mumford & Sons who had opened the show. Here’s a clip of Where the Streets Have No Name.

John Mellencamp: Sad Clowns & Hillbillies 2017 Summer Tour, The Mann, Philadelphia, PA, July 6

This will be my second time to see John Mellencamp, one of my favorite music artists. Similar to U2, I’ve listened to him since the early ’80s. I like both the early, more rock-oriented Mellencamp with songs like Hurts So Good, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A., as well as his roots-oriented, more stripped down approach he has increasingly adopted over the past 20 years. I think his current album Sad Clowns & Hillbillies with Carlene Carter is an absolute gem. I previously reviewed it here.

The summer tour, which features Carlene Carter and Emmylou Harris, includes 22 shows. It is set to kick off on Monday, June 5 in Denver, Colo. and will finish in Forest Hills, N.Y. on July 11. The concert at the Mann in Philly will be the 18th date. As reported by Variety, the upcoming tour will include outdoor gigs, the first time in 15 years Mellencamp has played such venues.  Here’s a clip of Indigo Sunset, one of the best songs from the new album. I think Carter’s beautiful country voice and Mellencamp’s raspy singing make for a great mix.

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’: F.M. Kirby Center, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., August 10

I’m particularly excited about this show, which will be the first time I see any of these legendary blues artists. Taj Mahal’s and Keb’ Mo’s recently released collaboration album TajMo, which I previously reviewed here, has become one of my most frequently played records. The joy these two guys had when recording the album is obvious and something I find very engaging.

Things got underway in Fort Collins, Colo. on May 30. The concert in Wilkes-Barre will be the 11th of 39 shows of the tour, which will conclude in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla on October 28. Here’s a clip of All Around the World.

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

While there are several hard rock bands I like, if I would have to choose only one, it would be Deep Purple. And if I would need to select only one of their albums, undoubtedly, it would be Machine Head, which to me is the definitive ’70s hard rock album. It was also one of my first vinyl records I bought in the late ’70s – I still own it!

While I’ve enjoyed listening to Deep Purple for more than 30 years, this will be the first time I’m going to see them live, as will be the case with Alice Cooper. But unlike Deep Purple, I don’t know Mr. Shock Rock’s music, except for the epic School’s Out and No More Mr. Nice Guy. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, the co-lining tour includes 19 gigs in North America, starting in Las Vegas on August 12 and concluding on September 10 in Cincinnati. PNC Bank Arts Center will be 11th show. The tour is part of Deep Purple’s Long Goodbye Tour – sounds like it’s about time to see them!

Of course, I realize Machine Head was released 45 years ago. It’s still hard for me to picture Deep Purple without Ritchie Blackmore and especially Jon Lord, and Ian Gillan’s voice has probably seen better days. But Steve Morse and Don Airey are top-notch musicians, and the band’s new album inFinite, which I reviewed here, shows Deep Purple still has some gas in the tank. Here’s a clip of Highway Star from a recent concert in Munich, Germany.

I’ll probably need hearing aids after the show!

Sources: Wikipedia, U2 web site, Rolling Stone, YouTube, John Mellencamp web site, Ultimate Classic Rock

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