Scott Underwood: Classic Mellencamp well worth March Madness sacrifice

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Mar. 26—My expectations were high. And they were low.

John Mellencamp is an American original, an Indiana original. He's one of my favorites. Over the course of my life, I've probably listened to more of his music than any other artist.

On the other hand, the last time I saw Mellencamp in concert, during his cameo with the Jim Irsay Band at Lucas Oil Stadium last fall, he was ... let's just say, apparently unhappy to be there.

So I had a choice Friday night: March Madness on my couch or Mellencamp in Emens Auditorium at Ball State.

It was a tough call.

I love, love the NCAA Tournament, and Purdue was playing Friday night.

Plus, I feared I would find Mellencamp to be disengaged and intent upon giving what he wanted to give, rather than what the audience wanted to get.

It didn't help that Mellencamp had a recent run-in with hecklers at a Cleveland concert and walked off the stage.

I wanted no part of that guy. Still, I held out hope that the Indiana original, the earthy, gritty, hard-working, everyman's Mellencamp was still in there somewhere.

So I went. And I'm so glad I did.

Under Mellencamp's direction, his six-piece band (three guitarists, a violinist, a keyboard/accordion player and Dane Clark of Anderson on drums) struck soulful, inspiring interpretations of his classic-heavy setlist.

And Mellencamp was who I've known him to be: fiercely authentic, self aware, engaged, defiant and socially conscious.

When I last saw Mellencamp, perhaps in 2008, it was also at Emens. He performed well that night but the crowd was lethargic.

Friday night was different. Mostly 50-60-somethings packed the 3,600-seat venue, and the atmosphere was charged.

I sat next to four middle-aged women from Terre Haute. One wore little-pink-houses earrings and tears on her cheeks. She swore that Mellencamp looked right at her as he sang. One of her Terre Haute friends estimated she'd seen him in concert 20 times.

It was just my third Mellencamp concert but clearly the best. He played some of my ol' Johnny boy favorites — including "Human Wheels," "Paper in Fire" and "Jackie Brown." But I'll best remember his stirring acoustic performances of "The Eyes of Portland" and "Longest Days," as well as the little girl who climbed on stage and sang, with a little Mellencamp coaching, "Hurts So Good."

I appreciate that Mellencamp did the concert his way, eschewing a warm-up band for several long clips from classic black-and-white films (including "Giant" and "A Streetcar Named Desire"). The audience got a little antsy as the clips kept comin', but the vintage movie scenes drove home the point that this concert would be about the human condition and the roots of our nation.

John Mellencamp's music has changed, his voice has changed, and God knows why he wears paint-splattered overalls on stage, but Mellencamp is still Mellencamp.

Friday night, he was even better than basketball.

Editor Scott Underwood's column is published Mondays in The Herald Bulletin. Contact him at or 765-640-4845.