Saturday, August 26, 2000

Mellencamp was music to those who could hear

Arena-filling rocker plays free on Fountain Square

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “This isn't really a concert, we're just playing on the street,” John Mellencamp told the lunchtime crowd of more than 7,000 that had gathered on Fountain Square and surrounding rooftops Friday.

[photo] Veteran rocker John Mellencamp gave a free concert for more than 7,000 fans on Fountain Square Friday.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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        Most of the crowd couldn't hear what he said because his acoustic trio played through a tiny sound system more suited to an intimate club than the downtown setting.

        The veteran rocker, who has filled arenas and amphitheaters through the '80s and '90s with his straight-ahead brand of heartland rock, is making his way across the country, playing free outdoor shows announced the day before on his Web site (

        It's an unprecedented tour for an artist who remains a major concert draw even though modern rock radio doesn't play his new music.

        His most recent show here, Dec. 29 at Firstar Center, drew a near-sellout crowd of more than 15,000.

        The surprise tour began as a lark on Aug. 10 when, during a family vacation, he did a solo show in Philadelphia that drew about 500. He liked it and has continued doing it. A Chicago performance Monday drew about 15,000 people. He plans to do others before Labor Day.

        And if there's no money in it, the publicity is priceless. Mr. Mellencamp's appearance here was covered by virtually all local electronic and print media.

[photo] Mr. Mellencamp played for more than 45 minutes in the midday sun.
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        Backed by Mike Flynn on accordion and fiddler Merritt Lear, Mr. Mellencamp, 48, a native of Seymour, Ind., strummed his acoustic Gibson guitar and sang a dozen songs, only four of which he is known for.

        He opened with his signature anthem, “Small Town,” and then played Josh White's old gospel/blues “In My Time of Dying.”

        He strummed the opening chords to his rocker, “I Need a Lover,” but couldn't remember it and did “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First),” instead.

        The bulk of the set was vintage blues, country and rock: Jack Guthrie's “Oklahoma Hills”; Bob Dylan's “All Along the Watchtower”; the Rolling Stones' “Street Fighting Man” and “Spider and the Fly”; Eddie Cochran's rockabilly oldie, “Cut Across Shorty,” which Rod Stewart covered on Gasoline Alley, the LP that inspired Mr. Mellencamp's acoustic experiments in the '80s.

        The lucky few hundred close enough to hear him sang along on the Mellencamp songs and clapped through the rest.

        He closed his 45-minute performance with one everyone knew, his 1984 hit, “Pink Houses.” Even those too far away to hear him sang along with the rest of the crowd.

        This isn't the next phase of his long career. He'll play Farm Aid 2000 on Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C., and is recording a new album this fall. In 2001, he plans to tour with his full band and usual 70-member crew and will probably play Riverbend. He drove in for Friday's performance from his home in Bloomington, Ind.

        “I'm not promoting anything, I'm not selling anything. This is free. I'm only doing this 'cause you guys have supported me for the last 25 years,” Mr. Mellencamp said early in his show Friday.

        As for those griping about the small sound system, he said afterward, “I really can't understand people complaining about anything. It's (expletive) free. The price is right. You got your money's worth.”
Photo gallery from Mellecamp's Fountain Square concert

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