Under the guise of recording the pilot episode of a new A&E Bio show called “Back Where We Started”, Mellencamp and his band made creaky, cozy and barely back-to-fire code Crump Theater in Columbus, Indiana their musical bunker for the night.
Opened in 1872, The Crump Theatre is like many old theatres throughout the country; it has seen the glory days and they aren’t today. Red carpet with black spots, theatre seats carted in for the occasion, covered by backseat upholstery from a 1960 Chevy, and the giant “R” and a “P” letters of the giant “Crump” venue sign out front of the theatre not lighting up. It’s a legendary Indiana palace in need of some love.
It was perfect.
There were no bad views in the place. The balcony hung halfway over the floor seats.
Mellencamp brought the show to Columbus, a small city that took things seriously. A couple city blocks closed off. Key to the city from the Mayor. TV cameras documenting it all. Plus a nice little auction of 75 pairs of tickets for the show raised $42,000 for local flood relief.
It became an evening that never felt false or posturing. The show was witnessed by Hoosiers who knew John’s history, mostly ignored the cameras, cheered for the obscure songs, rocked with the new ones and sang the rest.
After three beautiful and fun Mellencamp accapella songs from the Columbus North High School Choir opened the show, John walked right out with the band and set the tone. He informed the crowd that they needed to keep the camera flashes to a minimum because he was told it screws up the video. Then he added he didn’t really give a crap and the audience could do what they wanted, this was a rock and roll show.
A killer “Check it Out ” popped up early, along with “Paper in Fire”, and an acoustic set that featured “Minutes to Memories”, plus a medley of late 70’s, early 80’s songs he never sings (“To M.G. Wherever You May Be”, “Taxi Dancing” and a solo “I Need A Lover”).
It was during the acoustic interlude that Mellencamp admitted he didn’t remember the time they played at the Crump Theatre 30 years ago
“Who remembers 30 years ago?” he said.
Following the acoustic set, he roared the band back to life, with drummer Dane Clark and bass player Jon E. Gee building a great groove for the new “Life, Death Love and Freedom” album cuts. The songs sounded inspired live, with a blazing “Troubled Land ” the highlight, featuring chunking electric guitars from Andy York and 35-year band vet Mike Wanchic. The tune stood up to the pressure of following the anthemic “Small Town” and “Rain on the Scarecrow”.
A set closing run of “Crumblin’ Down” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”, “Jack & Diane” led to the encore of “The Authority Song”.
Really a remarkable show, made so with a combination of the historic, tiny, character-heavy theatre in the middle of a small town, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer swooping into the joint with a concert and a tv show videotaping in hand, and an audience that knew how to make noise, have fun, and respect the moment. All without failing to raise the emotion level for Mellencamp to have what looked like a damn good time.
It was the small things too. Very little security led to a relaxed, trusting vibe. One lady in our row got caught before the show by one of the few security guys as she was in her seat, drinking a bottle of Bud Light. That would have been OK — if they had been selling bottles of Bud Light at the show. Whoops. The security man started to come closer to her.
At the very least, the bottle would be taken and she’d be reprimanded. Security came nearer. He reached out to the woman.
With a “hear ya’ go” nod, a quick smile, and a extended hand, he waited until she poured the beer into the cup, then he took the bottle and was gone.
See? Life ain’t always that tough.
Not with a so-old-it’s-historic venue, a great midwest rock band and, by the end of the night, a bunch of people realizing they had witnessed something unique.
Rock and roll done right. Somethin’ to see, baby.
For one night, John Mellencamp returned to a place he said he couldn’t remember. But for the 600 or so radio station winners, auction top-bidders and whoever else could wrangle a ticket for the September 23 show that was not sold to the public, it turned out to be a memorable night of up close, back-to-roots rock, bearing the unique Mellencamp stamp. Brashness. Compassion. Pride. Middle-finger-extended attitude. Loud, rough-edged rock and roll.