All in all, as I’ve written before, 1992 was a good year. Diane and I were young and in love, spring was in the air and magic was everywhere – especially within the concert venues in and around Philly. Memories of many of those shows have turned to mush, unfortunately, but I’ve retained vivid imagery of a handful – including John Mellencamp at the Philadelphia Spectrum on January 15, 1992.
Although “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane” turned my ears and eyes in 1982, as videos for both were in rotation on MTV, it wasn’t until Uh-Huh – which was released during the summer of 1983 – that I plunked down cash for a Mellencamp album. Is there a better opening stretch on vinyl than “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song”? (FYI: I’m trading in hyperbole here.) “Play Guitar” was a crunchy good time, too. Aside from those glimmers of greatness, however, the album was solid, not stellar. Yet it set the stage for what came next: Scarecrow, one of the best albums of not just 1985, but the ‘80s as a whole. The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987 explored many of the same small-town themes while expanding Mellencamp’s sonic palette – fiddle, accordion and other Appalachian folk instruments. The underrated Big Daddy (1989) continued in the same vein. In 1991, however, Mellencamp shed the Appalachian vibe and returned to the straight-up rock of Uh-Huh with Whenever We Wanted – and, like Uh-Huh, it mixed the sublime with the so-so.
During the ‘80s, he was often (unfairly) compared to Bruce Springsteen – a heartland rocker with a conscience. But, really, the better comparison (if one is to be made) is probably to fellow heartland rocker Bob Seger, as he also kicked around quite a few years before coming into his own.
Work, school and cash had kept me from seeing him prior to this night, unfortunately, so I was beyond excited to finally see him in concert. I assumed that the night would emphasize Whenever We Wanted – and that was okay, as the songs I liked, I really liked. The title track, for instance, is sheer grace set to song…
…though it may just be the guitars that get me. (The same’s true for much of the album. Though longtime consigliere/guitarist Larry Crane is missed, new guy/guitarist David Grissom, ex of Joe Ely’s band, elevates even the most mundane tracks, such as “Get a Leg Up.”)
In any event, Diane and I scored decent seats: The last row (on the aisle) of whatever first-level section we were in. The show was either sold out or close to it. (I don’t remember seeing any empty seats, at any rate.)
My first memory is of the oddballs we often attract at concerts. Simple etiquette dictates that standing vs. sitting is set by those in the front rows, not those in the back. After the initial thrust, most folks take to their seats – but, in our section, the two (drunken) guys right in front of us decided they wanted to dance the night away. After some back and forth, we reached a quick compromise: We traded seats.
My second memory: The concert started strong until the end of the first set, when two acoustic numbers (“Big Daddy of Them All” and “Jackie Brown”) failed to connect in the arena as they did on vinyl. The second half all but blew the roof off the Spectrum, however.
My third memory: Mellencamp shaped the 24-song setlist more as a greatest hits showcase, with six songs from Scarecrow, four each from Whenever We Wanted, Big Daddy, Lonesome Jubilee and Uh-Huh, and two from American Fool.
My fourth memory: The intro to “Pop Singer,” in which he railed against turning pop and rock songs into advertisements. “I don’t want to be a TV commercial,” he exclaimed. It’s a rant well worth watching, falling at about the 1 hour, 20 minute mark of this video (not mine), which features the concert in full:
My fifth memory: Mellencamp’s band was, in a word, phenomenal. It featured drummer extraordinaire Kenny Aronoff, guitarists Dave Grissom and Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers, accordion/keyboard player John Cascella, first-class fiddler Lisa Germano (whose solo albums are well worth looking up) and Pat Peterson and Jenny Douglas-McRae on backup vocals and percussion.
My sixth and final memory: “Whenever We Wanted” wasn’t one of the night’s chosen songs – and, by night’s end, I didn’t much care. It was a great, great night that reaffirmed my faith in this thing called rock ’n’ roll. If you have two hours and fifteen minutes to spare, crank up the video I embedded above; the second half is a concert masterclass.
- Love and Happiness
- Paper in Fire
- Jack & Diane
- Lonely Ol’ Night
- Check It Out
- Rain on the Scarecrow
- Martha Say
- The Real Life
- Get a Leg Up
- Big Daddy of Them All
- Jackie Brown
- Small Town
- Minutes to Memories
- Now More Than Ever
- Pop Singer
- Crumblin’ Down
- R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
- Play Guitar
- Hurts So Good
- Authority Song
- Pink Houses
- Again Tonight
- Cherry Bomb