Michigan State University Student Radio

Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM

Michigan State University Student Radio

Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM

Michigan State University Student Radio

Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM


John Mellencamp, R.O.C.K. in M.S.U., takes a trip through classic cinema

John Mellencamp may have been born in a small town, but he had no issue rocking a college town Tuesday night.

The concert at Michigan State University’s Wharton Center in East Lansing began at the scheduled start time of 8 pm – sort of.

That’s when the lights dimmed, and a sizzle reel of black-and-white film clips from tour sponsor Turner Classic Movies began playing.

Twenty minutes later, red sirens stationed in each corner of the auditorium began flashing and the projector screen rose, revealing a stage setup that made it appear as if the audience had been transported onto the set of one of those classic films. Four mannequins wearing classic movie costumes and spotlights resembling the ones used on classic film sets adorned the stage as Mellencamp launched into his first song of the evening, “John Cockers,” in front of a backdrop closely resembling the exterior set of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” a 1951 film featured in the preshow.

Beyond providing the visual aesthetic for the show, the carefully curated movie clips also set the tone for the evening. “You just live for yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with,” Paul Newman is scolded in 1963’s “Hud.” In a clip from 1961’s “The Misfits,” Clark Gable tells Marilyn Monroe, “Nothing can live unless something else dies.”

One of the most powerful moments of the evening came about halfway through, when Mellencamp, wearing a dark jumpsuit that wouldn’t appear out of place in an auto shop, performed an acoustic version of “The Eyes of Portland,” a song off his 2023 album Orpheus Descending, in which he implores that “your tears and prayers won’t help the homeless” and refers to “this land of plenty where nothing gets done.”

Those themes may have been lost on audience members, however, who began to shout for Mellencamp to take the stage after two of the movie clips had played. Some audience members complained that they came for a concert, not to be lectured by movie clips a sign of the films’ timeless nature since attendees seemingly interpreted them as being applicable to modern politics. Even after the show, the clips were a hot topic of discussion among attendees in the elevator, who complained that they weren’t sure of the purpose of showing so many clips.

Once Mellencamp did take the stage, however, the audience was largely respectful, and the event went on without issue, though Mellencamp offered a few stories between songs, eliminating a source of tension with audience members at a St. Patrick’s Day show in the bordering state of Ohio days prior.

Now in his 70s, Mellencamp’s vocals have aged in a way that ultimately elevated the performance. His gravelly intonation during songs like “Longest Days,” also part of the acoustic set, in which he reflects that “life is short, even in its longest days,” reminds you that you have the privilege of being in the room with a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, upping the nostalgia factor for songs like “Small Town,” while adding to the grit and everyman appeal of songs like “Crumblin’ Down.”

While the final message projected on screen as the movie clips ended asked audiences to follow theater etiquette, that message thankfully managed to serve its purpose of stopping attendees from shouting at Mellencamp without preventing them from standing, dancing and singing along to hits like “Jack & Diane,” “Pink Houses” and “Hurts So Good”  so much so that Mellencamp hardly sang the choruses, mostly allowing the audience to take the lead, though it would have been nice to have the chorus in each song performed in full by Mellencamp at least once.

His radio hits are also rife with meaning “The simple man, baby, pays for the thrills, the bills, the pills that kill,” he sings in “Pink Houses” before asking “Ain’t that America?” but the audience seemed more receptive to that message, or at least more willing to overlook it, since it was coming from the narrator they spent years listening to.

Mellencamp will be back in Michigan on Sept. 15 for the Outlaw Music Festival, along with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Tickets for the show start at $59 for general admission to the lawn at Pine Knob Music Theatre in Clarkston.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Impact 89FM | WDBM-FM Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest