Roots Report: Getting Out

rootsSOkee dokee folks … Got out to a few shows this week and want to let you know what you all missed and what I thought of them.

On Thurs, Apr 16, John Cougar Mellencamp made a stop with his Plain Spoken tour at Providence Performing Arts Center. It seemed like it was a full house for the PPAC show. And the fans who filled the auditorium appeared to be lifelong followers, and a good deal of that crowd appeared to be in the 45+ age range (now are they called “Mellenheads”?). The six-piece, tuxedoed and gowned band took the stage at about 8:40 and played for a minute or two before Mellencamp joined them. Mellencamp hit the stage, Telecaster in hand, and launched into “Lawless Times,” “Troubled Man,” “Minutes To Memories” and “Small Town.” The audience was up and down in their seats all night, but mostly up. Mellencamp didn’t say a word to the crowd until after he finished “Small Town.” At that point he said, “I’m John Mellencamp. I’m going to play some songs that you know, some that you don’t, some that you can sing along and dance to. I’ll be singing all kinds of songs tonight.”

His band, stripped down to a three-piece of upright bass, cocktail drums and slide guitar and Mellencamp, sang the Robert Johnson cover, “Stones In My Passway.” “Human Wheels” brought the full band back and a few songs later Mellencamp picked up an acoustic guitar and did a solo version of “Jack and Diane.” He prefaced that song by saying, “The next song I am going to do I have been playing for an awfully long time … it pretty much says what I was doing the day I wrote the song … but I left some of it out.” The audience accompanied him along very loudly and Mellencamp let them take it alone a few times. He invited Carlene Carter back out and she joined him on two songs that are from a project that he worked on with Stephen King. Two of the most accomplished musicians on stage took center stage and did an instrumental violin-accordion duet medley of Mellencamp’s material. This was a very nice break-up of the set and was quite enjoyable. The rocking protest of “Rain On The Scarecrow” followed. The home stretch of songs featured “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses” and the reminiscing “Cherry Bomb.” He introduced “Authority Song” by saying, “I must have been 25 years old when I wrote this next song and I still feel the same way. I think that’s worth dancing about!” At the finish of “Cherry Bomb” Mellencamp did a little jump with a punch in the air. That was about as animated as he got that night. The show delivered enough older material and hits and a good mix of newer songs to satisfy. Mellencamp can still put on great performance even though his voice is a bit rougher and his higher register seems to have faded. The band was great and included his longtime lead guitarist (of 40 years as announced by Mellencamp), Mike Wanchic. Though Mellencamp told stories and imparted some witty stage banter, it seemed more like he was talking at the crowd than trying to engage them. His movements seemed stiff and reserved. “Cherry Bomb” brought the show to a close. Mellencamp thanked the crowd and left the stage. The 20-song set was over. The lights came up signaling that there would be no encore.

It has been a long time since I have seen him perform. About 30 years in fact. I first saw Mellencamp live when he was the opening act for Heart at the Providence Civic Center. Back then he was still John Cougar and since I am a true Rhode Islander who doesn’t like to change the name we originally learn (yup, I still call it Midland Mall), I often refer to him as John Cougar. When I saw him open for Heart, I wasn’t at all a fan. He had a couple of songs out: “I Need a Lover” and “I Ain’t Even Done With the Night.” They didn’t impress me much and neither did his performance. I remember him being pompous and sort of arrogant on stage. For some reason I also remember that he jumped on the shoulders of his guitar player during the last song. As he began to change his sound and his song writing style, I began to get interested in what he was doing. It was his Scarecrow album that turned me into a reluctant fan. I caught his Providence Civic Center show while he was on tour in support of that album. That was the last time I saw him until the other night. It is strange having a 30-year gap in seeing a performer. Back then he was very energetic on stage. Now at 64-years-old he is noticeably more subdued, but still entertaining.

Carlene Carter opened the show. This third generation member of the Carter family (and Johnny Cash’s stepdaughter) stepped on stage with her fringe shawl, leather pants and acoustic guitar and commenced strumming and singing. Carter told a few stories of her “mama,” June, and her grandmother, Maybelle, and of her own life. Her mother told her that she, “was kind of cute and sounded pretty good, but she needed to learn how to write a song.” So she started writing. She also told her, “If you are going to have sex, you need to get married.” And to this she remarked, “I got married a lot!” She told of how she first met Kris Kristofferson when his helicopter landed on the Cash’s lawn. She then said that the next song she would sing featured Kristofferson on the recording. In place of Kristofferson she invited her husband, Joe Green, out to accompany her on that piece. After that she sat down at the baby grand piano and played a song that she had written when her mother died. Carter’s set lasted about 35 minutes and closed with a song that segued into a couple of rounds of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I was only slightly familiar with Carter’s material. What I heard was enjoyable. I vaguely remembered hearing her opening number when it was popular about 20 years ago. During the show she referred to the video of that song and the “transparent dress” that she was wearing in it. Her nine song set consisted of mostly country rockers and ballads. At the intermission, Carter took to the merch booth and signed copies of her CDs for fans.

On Friday night I headed to my alma mater, Rhode Island College, to take in a performance of Godspell. Over the years I have seen many, many productions of Godspell. The structure of this musical is a series of parables, mostly based on the Gospel of Matthew, presented and interspersed with song, theatrics and dance. I was excited that a theater company was presenting this show as it has been about 10 years since I last saw it live. I am not a religious person, but Godpsell tends to keep it light and the parables, religious or not, are generally about good morals, which just about everybody could use.

The first sign of trouble with this performance was when I caught sight of about 25 chairs on the stage. I didn’t remember chairs in Godspell. And I certainly could not think of why they would have needed so many. The usual cast of Godspell is relatively small, about 10 in total. I kept an open mind. The performance began and the Jesus character appeared. Another bad sign, no Superman t-shirt — just a white shirt and pants. Jesus wore a Superman T in every performance I have seen. It was almost like a trademark for the show, kind of like Phantom of the Opera’s mask. I began to worry. The rest of the cast entered down the aisle singing. They were clad in everyday street clothes. This seemed ok. The number of them didn’t. It was about two and half times the usual size of a Godspell production. My first thought was, “Did everyone that tried out for this get in?” I was still trying to keep an open mind. During the first number the cast removed their “cover garments” and stripped down to simple, all black outfits. Now they took on the appearance of a cult. Normally the members would be clad in hippie garb, flower-child, or clown-like attire. When they used the chairs in one of the first songs, they used them in Cabaret-like movements and then seemed to go into convulsions while sitting and singing. It was obvious that they were trying to incorporate some form of modern movement into the musical, but it was more disturbing than successful. I wasn’t floored by the singing nor the orchestra. The music production sounded cheesy. I am not sure if it was the quality of the sound equipment or the sounds of the instruments themselves. The singing was average. I didn’t hear any standout performances. It honestly pains me to write this about something I had such high hopes for. I understand that this is a college performance, but to tell the truth some of the BEST performances of Godspell I have seen were community theater productions. Every performance of Godspell I have seen before followed the original formula and kept it light. This performance seemed dark and serious. Almost sermon-like. Also, there were just too many performers on stage and it was hard to identify and connect with any individual. I can understand how sometimes a director wants to take chances. But they have to accept that sometimes the chance doesn’t pay off. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Godspell is a simple production; it is hard to get it wrong but somehow they did. I give it an “A” for effort, but a “C” overall. Unlike me, the audience enjoyed the show. They gave a rousing, standing ovation. I had to wonder how many of them were familiar with the original. If I hadn’t have been so attached to the original would I have liked it better? Oh, well.

Finally, on Saturday night, I went to the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River for the 40th Anniversary performance of Aztec Two-Step’s Second Step album. I have been to many, many Aztec shows over the years and this was the first one I remember being a complete sell out. The guitar-vocal duo, who recently celebrated 44 years of performing together, have added bass guitar player for most of their shows. Rex Fowler and Neal Schulman got on stage and announced that the night’s concert was being filmed for an upcoming DVD release and that the audience was an important part of that. They then went right into “It’s Going on Saturday” and in sequence, like the album, played all 10 songs including Second Step’s closer, “Hey Little Mama.” In between songs Rex and Neal, mostly Rex, told stories about the songs and the process of the recording itself. Neal claimed that he “did not know that” about many of the stories Rex told. At the completion of the album they took an intermission and then came back to play many other Aztec favorites. In addition to the ATS songs they gave a nod to some of the great duos by playing the Everly Brothers, “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Old Friends/Bookends,” and Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love.” After playing a couple of encore songs, Rex asked for the audience to help them out while they played “Hey Little Mama” one more time because he blew a note in the song and wanted it right for the DVD. The audience gladly obliged. I didn’t notice the error and I usually hear those things. After 44 years, this duo still sounds great. Rex and Neal are in their late 60s and their voices and guitar playing are as good, if not better, than they were when they released the first ATS album back in 1972. Neal is still one of the most talented acoustic lead guitarists I have ever seen. ATS has always had a more of a cult following, but has always been worthy of much, much more. They were on top of their game on Saturday night and if you missed it, then the DVD will show you something you will certainly kick yourself for missing.

That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.

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