For a few minutes after the house lights went dark Friday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall, some 2,100 fans could've been forgiven for wondering: Wait, where is John Mellencamp going?
Before Mellencamp took the stage in Clearwater, he screened a cinematic 24-minute film looking back at his career and philosophy on music, replete with sweeping shots of combines, cornfields and slo-mo brush strokes on canvas – a Koyaanisqatsian tone poem on artistic expression in America.
"I don't think that anybody in 1975 imagined that we would still be doing this today," Mellencamp said in a voice-over. "The longevity of this is surprising."
It all felt a bit like the start of a farewell, something more than a few of Mellencamp's peers are doing these days.
But then the 67-year-old songwriter ambled out in a dark mechanic's jumpsuit, surrounded by a band in suits and gowns. And like the Indiana farm boy he is, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
In the first of two sold-out nights in Clearwater, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer relied less on the nostalgic pull of his can't-miss heartland hits, and more on grit, spittle and riff after riff after riff. Forget dusty farewells and dabs with a monogrammed hankie. Mellencamp and his band seem out to prove they can still R-O-C-K in the USA.
"People love to talk about old times," he said. "The only problem when you talk about old times is you gotta be old to talk about them."
True, Mellencamp does move gingerly at times, unlike the spry Johnny Cougar of the '70s. But he does in fact still move, especially on some old favorite soul and blues numbers. On the Louis Armstrong song Long Gone (From Bowling Green), he led an impassioned call and response with the crowd. And on Robert Johnson's Stones In My Passway, he shimmied, shuffled and screamed atop a randy slide guitar, busting out his best James Brown or Charles Bradley.
His voice, while weathered as whiskey-soaked boot leather, isn't dead by a long shot. Instead he's steering into the gravelly growl of his age, channeling Tom Waits or the best parts of Dylan on the stompy Troubled Land and accordion-buoyed Longest Days. Even Jack and Diane, delivered as an acoustic campfire strum-along, saw him swapping impassioned verses with the audience.
And on nearly every plugged-in song -- Lonely Ol' Night, Crumblin' Down, Paper In Fire -- Mellencamp punched and poked and snapped his wrists as his band, particularly guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York and violinist Mirium Sturm, muscled out righteous, furious chords across the stage.
At times, the message fit the music. Ever the rabble-rouser, Mellencamp railed against authority on Lawless Times and We Are the People, and worked overtime for the working man on the raging Rain on the Scarecrow. His most overtly activist song by far was 2017's Easy Target, which touched on living wages and Black Lives Matter, and ended with Mellencamp, that hero of flyover country, bending to a knee at center stage.
If it bothered the Hoosiers in the house, they didn't let it show on beloved singles like the inviting, communal Check It Out; the stir-'em-up rocker Authority Song; or the forever-timeless Pink Houses, still anthemic after all these years, especially when the Clearwater crowd belted out the line about vacationing down at the Gulf of Mexico.
Much earlier on, he jolted fans to their feet with perhaps his best-known hit, Small Town. And when he got to the last verse, and he sang the line "That's probably where they'll bury me," he took a step back, and milked that pause as the whole house sustained their applause.
In that moment, the crowd had to imagine an America without John Mellencamp. Someday he'll stop for good, and that'll be that. The retirement will be real, and the film will fade to black.
But then he and the band kicked back in, and the crowd pumped their fists and stomped along. Life goes on, as Jackie once sang to Diane. And for a little while longer, so does Johnny Cougar.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.