John Mellencamp and his crack band may have stolen the show at Farm Aid. The Seymour, Indiana, native opened his nine-song set with slower versions of "Pink Houses" and "Paper in Fire." The youthful intensity Mellencamp exuded when he called himself Johnny Cougar has smoldered into a slower-burning passion, as exemplified in the latter song during the chorus. Multiple members of his band lined up near the front of the stage like a marching-band squad, their voices swelling in a riotous call to arms.
That a communal spirit permeated Mellencamp's songs should be no surprise: Guitarist Mike Wanchic has been a Coug collaborator for thirty-plus years and guitarist Andy York is also a long-term band member. Their versatility was more impressive, however. Mellencamp's nicotine-stained voice cut through "If I Die Sudden," which had a shuffling, Texas honky-tonk feel, while "Troubled Land" sailed forward on a plush organ bed. And of course, Miriam Sturm's nimble violin dominated the chestnut "Check It Out," and she and accordionist/keyboardist Troye Kinnett played an instrumental mini-symphony before an awe-inspiring version of "Rain on the Scarecrow."
At least stylistically, that tune should be one of many considered to be alt-country ground zero. But Mellencamp doesn't get enough credit as an influence (or enough critical praise for his reflective later work), which frees him to just be a heart-on-sleeve badass. He ended many songs with what we termed the "Coug punctuation mark" -- an arm cocked back as if to throw a punch that instead ended in a pumped fist, i.e. "Yesss!" - and carried his guitar almost like a barbell.
An acoustic version of "Small Town" was a crowd-pleaser -- and not to be outdone by Willie and his kid, Mellencamp even brought out his son to play guitar on show-closer "Authority Song." Although the towheaded teen seemed a little nervous to be out there, the tune hasn't lost any of its defiant luster. Authority might always win - but Mellencamp still always comes out on top.
Setlist: "Pink Houses" "Paper In Fire" "Check It Out" "Save Some Time to Dream" "Small Town" "Rain on the Scarecrow" "Troubled Land" "If I Die Sudden" "Authority Song"