When you are an artist such as John Mellencamp, there is enough material in your extensive catalogue of profound works to draft a set-list that runs upwards of 24 hours. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for those in attendance, Mellencamp reigned himself in for the recording of his brand-new Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre, which arrives to DVD/CD, Blu-ray/CD, and digital formats on Friday, May 11, 2018, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment and Universal Music Group.
A true-blue American Singer-Songwriter, Mellencamp has amassed some 20+ Top 40 hits over the past forty odd years with his twenty-three albums. An acclaimed talent like no other, he has been nominated for over a dozen Grammy Awards, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recently nominated to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and is rightfully the receipt of a veritable plethora of prestigious songwriting awards. One of the founders of Farm Aid, throughout the years Mellencamp’s name has become synonymous with small town America and the Heartland.
A songwriter, storyteller, musician, actor, artist, and social activist, Mellencamp has recently brought together the many facets of his personality to create the beautifully-authored Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre. Taking place at the historic venue just hours from his native Indiana, this is one concert experience for fans to truly cherish. The package includes two versions of the same concert: one the standard addition, while the other contains voice-over commentary from the man himself. Additionally, for those inclined to enjoy Mellencamp in auditory format alone, a CD contains the audio of the concert performance without any visual accompaniments.
Firstly, it should be said that the title, Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre, is a bit of a misnomer: this is not merely a performance of 2014’s Plain Spoken, no. Rather, this is a 16-song set that runs the gamut from some of Mellencamp’s earliest hits (“Cherry Bomb,” “Small Town”) to, yes, Plain Spoken, and even 2017’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. In fact, the lovely miss Carlene Carter – who collaborated on the latter album – even makes an appearance to help “My Soul’s Got Wings” truly soar.
The performance starts with Mellencamp waiting in the wings, smoking a cigarette as his band of talented musicians take the stage and set the ambiance for the evening. Then, Mr. Mellencamp takes the stage to applause, never missing a beat as the band flow into the gritty honky-tonk step of “Lawless Times.” Soon after, the somber mood of “Troubled Man” places an emphasis on its marvelous string accompaniment and Mellencamp’s lyrical storytelling. Indeed a true American storyteller, he embraces every nook and cranny of “Minutes To Memories,” while for any long-time fan of this man’s music, the classic “Small Town” is a required highlight and one that he has aged into well; here, there’s still a triumphant and joyful celebration of being from nowhere.
Before the band launch into the funktastic groove of “Stones In My Passway,” Mellencamp promises an eclectic setlist of songs that are dance-able, full of offerings that are both new and old fan-favorites. The fans embrace this promise as his gristly stomp leads the joyfully ironic parade of “Pop Singer,” followed by the band soaring wild and free on “Check It Out.” At this point, it must be said that, performance wise, there are no frills here: just a talented man and his equally talented band making stellar music for appreciative fans. If you want to call it plain, so be it: but the talent on display here is anything but!
Before the largely acoustic “Longest Days,” Mellencamp spends a candid and amusing moment discussing his beloved grandma. Next, to fit the intensity and lounge-y vibe of “The Full Catastrophe,” the visuals switch to noir black and white. Popping back to color before “My Soul’s Got Wings,” Mellencamp discusses the collaborative effort Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, and then brings out Carlene Carter – stepdaughter of the late, great Johnny Cash – so that the pair can bring it home together for this inspiring jam session.
With the set winding to a close, the band and Mellencamp rock out on “Rain On The Scarecrow,” “Paper In Fire,” and celebrate the Punk Rock ethos of “Authority Song.” If there was an encore, it would definitely be the old-school favorites “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb,” providing that perfect, final opportunity to get up and dance! With your heart warmed and your hips shaking, it should be said that throughout the entirety of the performance on Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre, Mr. Mellencamp is congenial and engaging with his audience, telling anecdotes and sharing laughs, providing the perfect concert experience for those in attendance on this historic evening and even those of us imbibing from home.
It’s worth noting that the cinematography here is beautifully done, with varying perspectives that give the viewer the feel of being in the crowd, sneaking a peek from all the different, available angles. There’s an artfulness to the presentation that takes the languid time to highlight each member of the exceptional band – never forgetting that Mellencamp is the man, so to speak – but appreciating those that work tirelessly and lovingly to elevate him to his center-stage talents. Ultimately, the capture of the concert is well-done and enjoyable, even if this was the sole offering in this packaging.
While this concert portion of the collection runs for approximately 80 minutes, the DVD also contains the highlight of the presentation: a full-commentary version of the concert. On this voice-over commentary for Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre, Mellencamp sits down to impart some of his personal wisdom on songwriting (“Keep it small and keep it going, try to keep it as plain spoken as possible”), muses on the future of songwriting, and provides some poetic moments throughout his sultry story-telling. There’s talk of the demo days and the mid-‘70s in New York; our selfish, modern world; the music business; his father; lessons learned; and much, much more.
The bottom line here is that this is not your standard, goofy voice-over commentary where an artist pokes fun at themselves and their performance, and/or simply offers up behind-the-scenes anecdotes to accompany the performance. No. Instead, Mellencamp provides an intimate experience that feels as though he himself is sitting there engaging with you, providing his intelligent thoughts and musings for your own digestion. Thus, the voice-over commentary adds something truly special to the package, which was already solid thanks to the true talents of Mellencamp and his phenomenal band of merry men and women.
From the first notes of Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre, it immediately becomes clear that fans should not expect chandelier-swinging or stage-diving (not that they would!), but instead appreciate an intimate concert experience with the legendary John Mellencamp from the comfort of their own homes. Here, Mellencamp and his exceptional band pour their hearts into their performance art, creating a poetic presentation that puts them leagues above the bulk of their contemporaries.
If that wasn’t enough, there is an intimate and candid dialogue with Mellencamp in his voice-over commentary that wraps the entire package up in a wonderfully sincere and, dare it be said, plain spoken bow. You don’t need us to tell you that John Mellencamp is a genius storyteller, which is why CrypticRock give John Mellencamp’s Plain Spoken: From the Chicago Theatre 5 of 5 stars.