Midwestern summers are typically brutal affairs, consisting of scorching heat and oppressive humidity. For summer concert crowds, this usually translates into an endurance test that has most precariously balancing between grooving to the tunes or melting in the sun. Riding into town on the leading edge of a mercifully cool and rain-laden storm front, John Mellencamp and Shannon McNally found themselves in front of an audience at the outdoor Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre that was primed to cut loose.
Taking the opening act honors for the entirety of Mellencamp’s Summer Work Tour, Shannon McNally appeared onstage dressed in jeans and a tastefully low-cut, black sleeveless shirt. Taking a moment to strap on a guitar and give a casual toss of her long, raven-black hair, McNally immediately launched into a pair of songs from her debut Capitol release Jukebox Sparrows. In the studio, McNally strikes a stylistic pose between the R&B grittiness of Bonnie Raitt and the softer jazz/pop edges of Nina Simone. While never quite reaching the heights of those two legendary songwriters/performers—and let’s cut her some slack, she’s only 27—McNally proves she has the tools and desire to craft her raw talent into a unique artistic entity.
Swimming on the massive stage at Verizon, fronting a modest four-piece backing band, and opening for a Midwestern musical legend, McNally had her work cut out for her. “It Ain’t Easy Being Green”, one of the catchiest numbers off of Sparrows, set the tone and had McNally finding her groove. Following up with the laid back loper “Bolder Than Paradise”, it became obvious that McNally is striving to set herself apart from her female contemporaries. While these cuts managed to hold up live, McNally and her band felt a little too slick, a little too rehearsed to pull off a convincing sense of passionate spontaneity.
But with little warning, McNally dropped her guitar and danced, stomped and clapped her way through a solid cover of Leon Russell’s “Delta Lady”, showing that she indeed can not only demand an audience’s attention, but command it. After another trio of compulsory tunes from Sparrows that showed the occasional spark of powerful potential, McNally wrapped up with a cover of Bob Dylan’s rambling ode “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and Bonnie Raitt’s roadhouse-style blues bruiser “Love Me Like a Man”. It’s interesting to note that she found more of her own voice in the covers she chose than her own material, cutting loose with an exciting sense of reckless abandon. McNally has a strong presence, coming off as less demure than Sheryl Crow (and that is a compliment) but more than just a few steps shy from the edginess of Lucinda Williams. All in all, she’s got the goods to make her mark but needs the time to further develop her style and repertoire. There’s something to be said for the sort of experience a decade’s worth of obscurity and scraping from gig to gig and album to album can teach an artist about themselves and their craft.
As a veteran entertainer, John Mellencamp has seen his share of turmoil and triumph. The release of his latest album last year, Cuttin’ Heads, signaled a return to the simple songwriting and solid grooves of his earlier work. Touring this summer without the exclusive need to support a new album, Mellencamp was eager to open up the show to songs that illustrated the impressive breadth and width of his career.
Dancing out onto the stage in faded jeans and a black, rose-embroidered, Western-style shirt, Mellencamp and company, a raucously grooving eight-piece, threw three quick musical punches in a row in a pattern that would hold for most of the evening. “Love and Happiness” and “Peaceful World” quickly opened into what can only be described as one of several anthems for the evening, “Jack and Diane”. Even at 50, Mellencamp hits the ground running and demands the same of his band.
Making his way around the stage, Mellencamp clowned, hugged, slapped and mugged with his bandmates in between instrumental breaks and clowning with fans from the edge of the stage. After the first mini-set, he had rolled up his sleeves. Moving into “Paper In Fire” he had unbuttoned his shirt and by the time he came out for “Crumblin’ Down” he had stripped down to his T-shirt, revealing a bit of a paunch that his sizable belt buckle was hard-pressed to conceal. Regardless of the age he shows in his face (and the occasional strain for the higher melody lines written in his youth), Mellencamp worked the crowd and performed with the energy and audacity of teenager.
But as soon as the show had hit its stride, so had the weather. Sheets of driving rain plastered the crowd but did little to dampen spirits. Keeping a close watch on the overhead lighting rig that was dangerously swaying in the wind, Mellencamp step back onstage after a short break for the evening’s most poignant moments, which included a gentle acoustic version of “Small Town” and rocking gospel take on “Bound for Glory” which he dedicated to the memory of former Billboard magazine writer/editor Tim White who passed away a few weeks ago from a fatal heart attack.
Pacing through a few more of his classic hits, including more crowd sing-a-long favorites like “Pop Singer” and “Hurts So Good”, Mellencamp was joined by Shannon McNally for a solid round of “Pink Houses”. With so much material to draw from, it’s doubtless that this tour has been quite a treat for fans and an education for McNally. Meanwhile, even in the drenching downpour of a Midwestern rainstorm, John Mellencamp was out there simply having the time of his life.