This is a little review about John and Carlene. Two American kids who grew up in the Heartland.
John Mellencamp, he became a rock star. Carlene Carter tried to follow her famous family into country music and it didn’t always work out so well.
Now in their 60s and each thrice divorced, they seem to be at the point of saying life goes on, long after the thrill of stardom is gone.
But each remains interested in making music — and, for the first time — making it together. Released in April, “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies” is credited to “John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter.” Two of the most spirited songs from the album were featured during Mellencamp’s — and Carter’s — concert Tuesday night at the Minnesota State Fair.
They sang face to face on “Grandview,” a soulful rocker about where to park a trailer home (sort of a variation on his ‘80s hit “Pink Houses”). The gospelly “My Soul’s Got Wings,” with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Mellencamp, felt like a duet by Carter’s famous mom, June Carter Cash, and her more famous stepdad, Johnny Cash.
Every time Carter crashed the stage with Mellencamp (she joined in on “Pink Houses”), he seemed to light up. He was more engaged, impassioned and just plain ol’ more excited. That was obvious in the way he hugged her after “My Soul’s Got Wings” and she nuzzled him. Then he escorted her offstage.
Like Mellencamp’s career, Tuesday’s program was a mix of art and radio music. Of late, he has opted for making quieter Americana music and performing in theaters. In front of his biggest Twin Cities crowd (12,637 people) since 2005, he opened with some muscular roots rock of recent vintage, “Lawless Times,” a Dylanesque social commentary that started like Muddy Waters before evolving into a blues shuffle, and the snarling “John Cockers” about a despairing man who lives in isolation.
But Mellencamp quickly turned to the kind of blue-collar anthems, including “Small Town,” that made him such a dominant force on radio in the 1980s and ’90s. He has fashioned a career out of singing about ideals and incongruities, dreams and disillusionments. He may be more plain-spoken than poetic, but he has demonstrated an uncommon ability to balance populism and protest. And, with his flair for catchiness, he can transform socially conscious songs into party music.
That’s what the home stretch of his 85-minute performance became — party music with a pointed message. “Rain on the Scarecrow,” from 1985, still seethes about the family farmer. With gum-chewing vitriol, he spit out “Crumblin’ Down,” about a relationship gone wrong.
He introduced “Authority Song,” saying he wrote it when he was 26 and he still feels the same way. As he roared about fighting authority but authority always winning, it was about as frenzied as the 65-year-old Rock Hall of Famer gets these days.
The Indiana rocker with an overly exuberant pompadour reworked some of his classics. “Pop Singer,” his anti-pop hit, was recast with a Stonesian strut, and “Jack and Diane” was done as a solo acoustic singalong during which he fooled the fans into skipping a verse and going to the chorus too soon. Ah, the lovable contrarian.
The 61-year-old Carter opened the evening solo, proving that she’s a charming storyteller, splendid songwriter and strong singer.
In the end, it was obvious that John and Carlene, two American kids, are just doing the best that they can.