John Mellencamp Serves Americana in the Tenderloin

John Mellencamp
Golden Gate Theater
March 18 , 2023

Photos by Raymond Ahner

Typically the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco is located at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. However, if you asked veteran rocker John Mellencamp for directions to his St. Patrick’s day shows at that venue this past weekend, he would have likely said the location would be at the improbable intersection of Americana and the Tenderloin.

While it is difficult to reconcile in the mind’s eye the very disparate scenes of the slowed-down pace and simple virtues of bucolic middle America with the frenetic, sometimes schizophrenic and dangerous nature of the Tenderloin, John Mellencamp at the Golden Gate Theater brings it all into focus.

To the very talented, sometimes gruff Mellencamp, the two are ironically similar, and he was quick to point out that the government needs to do something soon to show that they care about the citizens of both worlds.

John Mellencamp

With the 71-year-old singer-songwriter/activist/painter/actor back on the road after a three-year live music respite due to pandemic restrictions, he is bringing the Americana of the heartland to every stop on his current tour.

The roots-rock scene in San Francisco has been somewhat barren for some time. Thinking back you would need to tap into the local talents of Bone Cootes or the defunct Sorrow Town Choir to get the same type of no-nonsense storytelling rock that Mellencamp brings to the stage.

Mellencamp, supported by a stellar six-piece band showed exactly why he has become such a highly regarded songwriter during his two-night stand at the Golden Gate Theater. Playing to a packed house he put his complete catalog on display playing, as he stated, “Songs that you will know, songs that you may not know, and songs that will make you dance.”

John Mellencamp

After a pre-set montage of scenes from films of the Golden Age of Hollywood (including The Misfits and Grapes of Wrath among others), Mellencamp led off his set with the bluesy ramble of the 2008 track ‘John Cockers,’ offering the wisdom “I know many people but I ain’t got no friends.” The seated crowd suddenly rose to salute the start of the set with many up and dancing. This action continued directly into the straight-ahead rock of ‘Paper in Fire’ (The Lonesome Jubilee – 1987).

From here Mellencamp was in his element during this first electric set. Darting between the jangle of hits like ‘Small Town’ and the country-tinged rock of ‘Jackie Brown, he had the intimate audience hanging on his every word….and he definitely had something to say.

Always outspoken, Mellencamp had no reservations in airing his opinion during the next section of the set which saw the band exit the stage to turn it over to the fiery singer and his acoustic guitar.

John Mellencamp

Opining about topics ranging from loudmouths in the audience to the government to simply just whether and when to ‘give a fuck,’ Mellencamp opened up in a ‘storyteller’ fashion which had him speaking frankly in between songs.

Before starting with the acoustic set he gave what he termed a ‘public service announcement,’ advising folks to be respectful during the quiet portion of the show. He did so in his own imitable style by saying “Let’s be a community and get into the songs…the last thing we want is to listen to some dumb mother fucker screaming out stupid shit.”

After giving the back story about encountering a manic, 25-year old prostitute in Portland who served as the muse for ‘Eyes of Portland,’ Mellencamp started into the somber, folksy, protest anthem. It wasn’t 30 seconds into the song when someone started screaming, breaking the mood in the room and Mellencamp’s patience as he stopped the song. “Get that mother fucker out of here….give him his money back I don’t give a fuck!”

John Mellencamp

Irritated?  Yes, but also spellbinding in his delivery, he then went back to the song which decries the growing issue of homelessness throughout the nation, and lambasts the government’s indifference to remedy the problem.

Dodging back to his out-loud stream of consciousness, Mellencamp then took up the subject of “giving a fuck.” “Something I have learned in my more than seventy years is that we are all just on a big rock spinning around the sun, so don’t give a fuck about the little things like people not immediately going forward at a light.”

“You only have so many fucks to give in a lifetime, so you gotta make them count. Don’t waste ‘em on little things or you will use them all up…then when you need to give a fuck you won’t have any more fucks to give.”   Aristotle couldn’t have said it better.

John Mellencamp

Pivoting to an acoustic version of his slice of middle America megahit ‘Jack & Diane’ and a soul laid bare rendition of ‘I Always Lie to Strangers’, the band re-emerged and brought with them the weight of the in your face rock of Mellancamp’s catalog.

A highlight of the evening was the trio of ‘Rain on the Scarecrow’ into ‘Lonely Ol’ Night’ into a medley of ‘Crumblin Down/ Gloria,’ which was driven by the punch in the face rhythm of drummer Dane Clark and bassist John Gunnell, the steely tandem guitars of Mike Wanchic and Andy York, the piano work of Troye Kinnett, and the virtuosity of violinist Lisa Germano.

The performance culminated with the hit that is arguably the defining song of Mellencamp’s career – the Grammy award winning ‘Hurts So Good.’ A rollicking performance that ended the night with folks dancing in the aisles before venturing back into the reality of the Tenderloin night.

John Mellencamp

Speaking of which, upon returning to my car (parked in a garage mind you), I had the shitty realization that it had been broken into….nothing stolen, there was nothing in there…just a smashed rear window….go San Francisco!!  I wonder if John Mellencamp would warrant this worth giving a fuck?