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‘Wild Nights’ coming to Embassy

Indiana’s favorite son Mellencamp performing back-to-back nights

John Mellencamp will be at Embassy Theatre, May 15-16.
Wheat Williams

Wheat Williams

Whatzup Features Writer

Published May 3, 2023

John Mellencamp, perhaps Indiana’s most beloved living musical artist, has never shied from expressing what he wants to say. 

He’s on a national tour, and his two-night stand at the 2,500-seat Embassy Theatre on May 15-16 has been virtually sold out since the tickets went on sale in October, so you’ll want to act fast if you want to catch him.

It’s just been announced that his 25th album, Orpheus Descending, will be released June 2. It follows last year’s critically acclaimed Strictly a One-Eyed Jack, about which Rolling Stone wrote, “Mellencamp has made an urgent-feeling, musically rich record, one of his most memorable in a while. Whether life has much left to give him is his call to make, but he still has plenty to offer us.” 

songs from the heartland

Beginning in 1976 and coming from south of Bloomington, the region he still makes his home, Mellencamp and band crafted a distinctive brand of decidedly small-town, rough-edged rock. Themes of small towns, farms, and young lovers trying to find their place in a big world, and sentiments from “the heartland,” are subjects he’s come back to again and again. Comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and his New Jersey tableaus were appropriate, but Mellencamp cultivated a rustic edge that contrasted with Springsteen’s East Coast suburban ballads.

Mellencamp roared onto American album-oriented-rock radio with his fourth release in 1979 (under the stage name John Cougar, which he was saddled with for years — it’s a long story) featuring a miniature epic called “I Need a Lover.” It’s five-and-a-half-minute long, with a brilliant two-and-a-half-minute hard-rock instrumental intro showcasing the band before Mellencamp’s voice comes soaring in. When a band trying to break out comes up with a record like that, I like to call it “arena rock in search of an arena.” Well, he certainly found himself lots of those.

By 1982, Mellencamp found his stride with a steady stream of organic-sounding albums, strong on lyrics and strong on acoustic and electric guitar hooks, with massive, enduring hits like “Hurts So Good,” “Jack and Diane,” and “Pink Houses.” 

The latter was Mellencamp’s cynical, bitter-edged commentary on racial inequality and the class divide in America, but it had a simple, sing-along chorus. Not surprisingly, it suffered a similar fate to Springsteen’s colossally misunderstood “Born To Run” and “Born in the USA,” when a number of right-leaning political candidates and causes tried to adopt “Pink Houses” as an anthem about conservative values. It’s what happens when folks just don’t listen to the words in the verses. Mellencamp, long a supporter of more liberal causes but an equal-opportunity social critic, sent out a lot of cease-and-desist letters, but as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

reuniting with violinist

Skipping ahead to 2023, true fans will be thrilled that violinist Lisa Germano (a solo artist in her own right) is back playing with Mellencamp’s band after 30 years. 

Germano was the first violinist to work with Mellencamp, on his seminal 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee and for several albums afterward. She helped Mellencamp craft a new, signature folk music-influenced sound. That’s Germano’s fiddle on beloved singles like “Paper in Fire,” “Cherry Bomb,” and that unforgettable anthemic hook backed by an accordion on “Check It Out.” 

Mellencamp’s voice wove stories while acoustic guitars, dobro, and dulcimer danced around Kenny Aronoff’s insistent hard rock drums. 

You can’t overstate how influential that run of Mellencamp albums were, coming out of the rest of the 1980s’ hair metal and synth-pop. A generation of bands at the intersections of rock, folk, and country took the inspiration, and what came to be called Americana is its own enduring musical genre today.

going beyond music

When the run of hits ran their course, Mellencamp, who had absolutely nothing to prove, stayed culturally and politically relevant. He helped spearhead the Farm Aid movement to call attention to the plight of small, independent farmers. Steadily since the ’80s he has been a visual artist as a portrait painter. He collaborated with author Stephen King and music producer T-Bone Burnett on a Southern-gothic-horror musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which was developed into an all-star album and was staged by a major theater company in Atlanta for a run in 2012. His website states there’s a new musical called Jack and Diane in the works.

On tour with Mellencamp and his special guest Germano is the faithful Mike Wanchic on guitar, who has played with Mellencamp since 1976. Guitarist Andy York is musical director, leading Dane Clark on drums, John Gunnell on bass, and Troye Kinnett on keyboards and accordion.

If you want to know what’s on Mellencamp’s mind these days and what’s fueling his songwriting, we’ll close with his own words, which are the first thing you’ll see on the home page of his website: “Only in America, and I mean only, in America, can 21 people be murdered and a week later be buried and forgotten, with a flimsy little thumbnail, a vague notion of some sort of gun control law laying on the senators’ desks. What kind of people are we who claim that we care about pro-life? Just so you know, anyone that’s reading this … politicians don’t give a (expletive) about you, they don’t give a (expletive) about me, and they don’t give a (expletive) about our children. So, with that cheery thought in mind, have a happy summer, because it will be just a short time before it happens again.” 


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