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CJ Burroughs

CJ Burroughs

Friday, 08 December 2017 17:32

Beautiful: The Story of a Natural Woman

While I’d yet to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical since it premiered to much acclaim (and a U.S. tour) a couple years ago, I entered the Cadillac Palace Theatre for its latest Chicago debut a lifelong Carole King fanboy. I knew her songs. I knew her story. But for a couple hours on Wednesday night, the cast of this latest touring production made me feel like I knew her.

But first, those songs. The audience, young and old, knew them all. The older ones, the ones who’d been there the first time around, giggled with nostalgia. And the rest of us – who know them from parents, from oldies radio, from YouTube, from simply being alive – were every bit as thrilled. From John Michael Dias’ mugging Neil Sedaka singing “Oh Carol” on national TV to his former high school flame, Carole Klein, to the ensemble’s medley of Brill Building tunes love-potioning and splish-splashing and yakkity-yakking, we were all Boomer kids taken back to a not-simpler time.

The real standouts of this jukebox time machine were two vocal quartets. Playing the parts of The Shirelles, Little Eva and her backing singers, and Janelle Woods and her own group, McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Traci Elaine Lee, Marla Louissaint, and Alexis Tidwell were magic as they brought classic takes on King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day.” The dresses, the elegant moves, the wedding chapel harmonies, and those songs. Wow. They were only equaled by their male counterparts – Josh Dawson, Jay McKenzie, Avery Smith, and Kristopher Stanley Ward – whose coiffed hairdos, satin suits, and smooth moves as The Drifters made it look so easy as they doo-wopped and stepped to “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof.” But Ms. King’s songs weren’t the only ones on display. While The Drifters did a nifty walk down Weil and Mann’s “On Broadway,” the rival songwriting duo’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was retaken from Tom Cruise’s boozy Top Gun barroom ballad by Matt Faucher and Dias again as The Righteous Brothers. Faucher’s baritone filled the Cadillac, and Dias’ high harmonies brought it home. Again, wow. Wish I’d been there the first time around, but this cast showed off their chops while paying quite a tribute to the classic songs and their songwriters who the story’s about.

And about that story. Again, as a fan, I knew the outline: NYC kids slave away in a Times Square hit-making sweatshop, soundtrack a generation, and one of them makes it big herself later on. But the main cast fleshed out the story’s characters. They took them from characters to people. James Clow’s gum-chewing, contract-signing Don Kushner was intimidating but encouraging. Sarah Goecke’s witty, Cole-Porter-wannabe wordsmith, Cynthia Weil, was a woman ahead of her time. Jacob Heimer’s neurotic lady’s man, Barry Mann, made you root for him. And Andrew Brewer’s smoldering but sensitive Gerry Goffin made you swoon, even as you knew the dirty dog was sneaking around on his Carole.

And Carole. Oh, Carole. As Neil Sedaka sang, “there will never be another.” And throughout the show, lead Sarah Bockel not only proved Sedaka right, giving us Carole King’s look and playing and voice, she gave us Carole Klein, the person. Many talented performers could probably approximate King’s hair or her vocals. But Bockel went beyond that, giving us the perky and precocious 16-year-old writing those hits and falling for that hunk. She gave us the broken but devoted young mother finding out not just who she’s married to – Bockel and Brewer’s chemistry was very sweet and seemed very real – but who she herself is. And she gave us that self, finally confident to write her own words, to tell her own story, to sing it loud, for a crowd, for us. And that story, of a woman claiming her soul from the lost and found and using it to give voice to not just a generation, but many generations to come, was what wowed the Cadillac’s crowd the most. The voices will make you applaud. The songs will make you nostalgic. But the story this cast and their show tell of this natural woman, this national treasure, will make you feel. It made me feel.

For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

As I entered the Cadillac Palace Theatre – originally the Orpheum Circuit’s lavish vaudeville flagship before keeping up with the times to become a golden age movie palace – the simple, classy screen that hung over the stage gave me hope for the evening’s entertainment. There was the show’s title and logo, red and white on a bright blue backing, all nostalgia, all sheen, all promise of a combination of the silver screen, of classic composition, of live theatrical talent. I could hardly wait for the screen to rise and the show to start.

But first, in full disclosure, I’ve never watched the movie straight through. Sure, I’ve seen the whole thing in fits and starts and bits and pieces through the years (married, as I am, to one of its biggest fangirls). But I’m more of a fan of the rock and rollers – the Little Richards, the Orbisons, the Chucks and Jerry Lees and Buddies with something a little randier and a little rowdier and a little more real – who came along and did away with the post-war schmaltz. What I mean is, while I appreciate, no, adore, earlier Hollywood musicals like The Wizard of Oz or even Berlin’s Easter Parade, as well as later ones like The Music Man, I have no real sentimental attachment to Bing and Rosemary. I figured I’d be an objective audience, a fresh set of eyes and ears for this production.

The show began and these eyes and ears weren’t impressed. The sets were bright and looked the part – the scene with the song “Snow” on a train car was beautiful, a real mid-century-modern knockout – but they weren’t the 1950's real thing. The actors, too, were talented and pleasant as they played their parts, but they weren’t Bing or Rosemary or Danny or Vera. Nobody could be.

So, as the first act progressed, I remained unimpressed. The story (and the music, and the sets, and the cast) were fine, but the show needed some charisma, it needed some pizazz, it needed something.

Where that something did come up was when the show added tunes by Berlin that weren’t in the movie. These songs hadn’t been staked out by the film’s icons, and the current production’s cast wasn’t forced to approximate the ideal they’d set. They were fresher. They gave this cast room to show their talents, to show themselves, and not just takes on someone else. An example was “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun.” Throughout the night, the female lead, Kerry Conte, had Rosemary Clooney’s shoes to fill, a task I did not envy. But during this number, she fit right into an Andrews-esque trio, her vocals polished, her moves authentic. The lead singer in said number, Karen Ziemba’s Martha, stood out not just here, but in her own featured piece earlier that also strayed from the film and added to the show. Other standouts included: young Makayla Joy Connolly, who had a fine feature of her own; Kristyn Pope, who lit up the stage as recurring Rita and part of the ensemble; and Conrad John Schuck, whose General Waverly/Innkeeper Hank was equal parts Patton and grandpa.

And as I said, while the first act dragged, the second act moved at a much better pace, better utilized the cast, and ended the night with some holiday cheer (spoiler alert: the show is called White Christmas). So if it’s an exact reproduction of the Technicolor glow and the old-microphone glisten of the film you’re after, stay in and watch it on TV. But if you’re just looking for a feel-good family jumpstart to the holiday season, then this might be the show to see.

White Christmas is being performed at Cadillac Palace Theatre through December 3rd. For more show information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.

Newsies, the Disney film from 1992 by Alan Menken (whose run around the same time of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin I’d put up against the work of any songwriter, on tape, on film, or on stage), was one I saw back when it hit VHS. But I don’t remember it too well. At least not the story. So, having not yet seen the Broadway adaptation of Newsies, I was curious to see if the Marriott Theatre’s production made more of an impression. And boy, did it ever.

The story’s still nothing that’ll make the “papes” (that’s what newsies call those inky, stinky things that used to provide the daily headlines), but I quickly realized we weren’t there for story. We were there for spectacle. And boy, did this production deliver.

In the round, the set is dominated by three steel girders that move to change the feel and figure depending on the needed background, but mostly harken back to turn-of-the-century NYC (partying like it’s 1899, not 1999), a city that’s growing and figuring it all out. So, too, are the newsies of the title, a pack of newspaper delivery boys of all shapes and shades and sizes, but who’ve got one thing in common – servitude to the media titans of the day. The story – one of standing up to the wealthy bullies who run things – is inspiring and as apt today as it was over a century ago, even if it doesn’t hold up to the spectacle. So let’s get to that spectacle!

Patrick Rooney as principal paperboy Jack Kelly works well as the lead. He’s got old-timey leading man looks and allure – “pizazz” they probably would’ve called it back in ‘99. And he’s got pipes, too, really letting loose on Menken’s “Santa Fe” to close the first act.

Jack’s fellow newsies have pizazz from the Bronx to Brooklyn, too. Athletes, all, they leap and bound, frolic and flip all across the square stage, charming the audience on all sides with spot-on choreography. Nick Graffagna as Davey looks and talks the part of a lad of that era, and Garrett Lutz’s bushy-haired Irishman does, too. Laura Savage and Adrienne Storrs as two newsgirls provide even more spunk and theater talent to the gang. And when the newsies storm the simple stage for ensemble numbers like “Seize the Day” and “King of New York” they make Lincolnshire’s modest forum seem simply metropolitan.

But from the get-go, the newsie who stands the tallest is young Matthew Uzarraga. As Crutchie, a disabled orphan armed with his namesake walking stick, Uzarraga first shows his skills when he joins Jack in harmony on an early take of “Santa Fe” – I’m a sucker for spot-on harmonizing, one of the things that’s hardest to do as a vocalist and when done right gives the listener goosebumps – giving me the chills. And throughout the show, Uzarraga’s crippled but plucky street urchin steals the stage whenever he’s on it, hobbling along happily and even bubbly and bright when consigned to a poorhouse bed.

My teen daughter, who accompanied me to the Marriott and who did catch the traveling cast of Newsies at the downtown Cadillac Theater a couple years back, said she enjoyed this production even more – delighted at seeing the footwork and old-timey fashions up close. So, too, did the rest of the audience – old and young, alike. So if it’s a story you’re looking for, I’ll tell you right now, Newsies is pretty much Annie, but with Worlds and Suns and Tribs instead of mops and buckets and baldheaded tycoons. But if it’s a show, a spectacle, you wanna see, then head to Lincolnshire for the Marriott’s production of Newsies, and pony up for the pomps and papes they’re sellin’!

For more show information visit www.marriotttheatre.com.

“That didn’t even sound like a mandolin,” I said to my companion – a mandolinist of some considerable skill – as we left Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts after attending An Evening with Chris Thile.

“That’s what a mandolin’s supposed to sound like,” he said.

I guess so.

A musician myself, I’ve always found that particular instrument to be a bit shrill, a bit annoying, a tiny guitar with too many strings that doesn’t know if it wants to be a hillbilly or a classy sort of feller. I hadn’t known what to expect a couple hours earlier as my friend and I found our seats and watched a lone gentleman clutching an aged instrument step out under a single white spotlight.
But the acoustics and the sound system in the complex’s Center Theatre – both of which match the room’s clean and classy comfort – could have had something to do with the beautiful sounds I’d hear for the next two hours.

So could the single classic microphone, standing at the front of the stage to catch both Thile’s voice and playing.

It might have been the mandolin he was playing – nearly a century old, built by a legendary luthier, and aged gracefully to perfection like most antique stringed instruments do, if they survive that long.
But I’m pretty sure most of the credit goes to the man on the mandolin. From the first keening cry that erupted from his throat – met moments later by the plucking, picking, and petting of eight strings that wouldn’t let up till we were all satisfied – everyone in that theater was at the mercy of a real master. A master musician. A master showman. A man on the mandolin.

After beginning the set with a tune of his own followed by one by his band, The Punch Brothers, Thile took the classier road, performing Bach’s Partita in D Minor. On the mandolin. And, as I said up top, it didn’t sound like a mandolin to me, or what I thought a mandolin would sound like. Like so many other apex instrumentalists before him – Joshua Bell on his Strad, Jimi Hendrix on his Strat – Thile turned the wood and the wire into something more than what it had been crafted into – something other than a mandolin, entirely. The sound was huge, beautiful, otherworldly, other. It filled the hall. It filled me. I don’t know if I took a breath from the first note to the last.

My friend noted that not a note of Bach’s had needed to be added or changed, that what Bach wrote almost exactly three centuries ago was perfect then, and is still perfect today. And Thile played it perfectly. When he’d finished, he acknowledged the song’s creator, “Johann Sebastian Bach…the MAN”…even though right then, Thile was the man, playing some of history’s most brilliant music as brilliantly as it could be played.

But perfectly performing classical pieces isn’t this man’s only trick. Nope. I’ve seen Joshua Bell play the hell out of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – one of the other times in my life I’ve had the pleasure of watching, hearing, experiencing one virtuoso interpret the work of another. But many virtuosos are one-trick ponies. Most doesn’t also host a long-running radio program that has become an institution, taking over for its beloved creator and decades-long voice. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but few musicians you could call virtuosos also write and perform their own music – music that can hold up during a program that features composition’s colossi.

Introducing a tune he’d written as a “Song of the Week” for Prairie Home Companion, Thile lamented last November’s electoral result and the direction of the country with the romping “Elephant in the Room.” A couple numbers later, he pulled out another written for NPR on the same theme, the swaggering “Falsetto.” Other originals were highlights, too. When Thile asked the audience for requests, one was The Punch Brothers’ “Magnet,” which he noted was one-fifth written by a Skokie native. After that he played another of his own – from this year’s collaboration with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau – a reflection on his favorite childhood bible story called “Daughter of Eve.”

While Thile’s playing and writing are indeed masterful, his voice is worth noting, too. All night I kept trying to come up with comparisons for what I was hearing, and because of his voice, I kept coming back to Jeff Buckley. Not because Thile can sing as well as Buckley – nobody can. But he reminded me of Buckley in the way he let his voice soar freely, in the way he could just let it go, up and up and up, floating and searching and floating some more, unashamed and free.

But mostly he reminded me of Jeff Buckley in his ability to take music written by others and make it his. I heard it when he made the bluegrass classic “Rabbit in the Hole” sound brand new, still respecting its roots. I heard it when he covered Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why,” turning a classic album’s opening tune I know so well into something new, too. And I heard it on my second favorite song of the night – one I admit I didn’t know the provenance of, mistaking it for an old sea shanty standard until I got home and looked it up – a take on Josh Ritter’s “Another New World.” As he did during each vocal piece, Thile interspersed bursts of virtuosic playing throughout the song – mixing mandolin with sails and ships, with Ninas and Pintas and Santa Marias, with Annabel Lee – the end result even more than just a beautiful story beautifully told and beautifully sung. It was beautifully played.

The highlight of the night, however, began with a little aside (Thile’s also a talker, as any radio personality should be, I suppose), as he told the crowd he’d written “Song for a Young Queen” as a boy, inspired by Natalie Portman in her 90s role as the future mother of Luke and Leia, and his own true boyhood love for her. And then came a magical moment for me. Now, I’ve seen a lot of shows in my life. But the one show – and the one moment during that show – that still means the most for me was way back in August of 2001. On a day that had hit a hundred, with the grass of Grant Park beneath my feet, with Lake Michigan to my right, with Chicago’s skyline to my left, and with a full moon above me and behind me, my favorite band Radiohead encored with a then-little-known rarity, “True Love Waits.” When that band’s singer, Thom Yorke, began it, it was one of those moments. So when, during his own song, Chris Thile sang Yorke’s words, “I’ll drown my beliefs,” he had my ear. And when he took that song, one I know inside and out, and stretched it out and embellished it with his playing and made it his own, he had my heart. And when he ended with its lyrics, “just don’t leave,” I didn’t want him to.

So, needless to say, seeing Chris Thile play the other night at Skokie’s North Shore Center was a performance I won’t forget. It’s, to be honest, a performance I’m still processing. The man showed off his many talents. The mandolin never sounded better. And this musician – now a fan – might never have seen the untouchable greats – the real inarguable virtuosos like Jimi on guitar or Buckley and his voice – ply their craft. But he can say he did see one in Skokie in October of 2017 when he was lucky enough to hear what mandolins supposed to sound like. When played by a master. When played by the man.

As my sidekick for the evening – himself a theater and sketch comedy guy – and I entered Stage 773’s Cab Theater on Saturday to see Cupid Has a Heart On, we were greeted by smiley, bubbly folks who I guessed were cast members of the show. I turned out to be right. I said to my pal, “Looks like we’ll be spending an evening with grown-up theater kids, huh?” I’d turn out to be right about that, too.
The venue’s got a cabaret feel – black all around; red Naugahyde, too; swanky and dark like a Saturday night. We crossed the stage and found seats in the far corner, back behind the accompanist and his keyboard. Turns out the pianist was also the show’s director, Brian Posen. His playing throughout the show was rollicking and rambunctious – very much an old-timey lounge feel to fit the surroundings – and Posen even took part in a number about himself, as the lonely piano player, later in the evening. The music he and the cast have written and performed was really something, bouncing from one genre to the next and always played with absolute musicianship. But a bit of advice for those who see the show – while the red pleather booth behind the piano was plenty comfortable and afforded a nice view, the sound of the keys often drowned out the performers’ vocals.

The songs and sketches that made up the show were fun, though I’m still not sure who the target audience was. The baby boomers in the crowd laughed the loudest, while much of the content seemed to be about those much younger than middle age, about the age of the millennials who are the show’s actors and singers. Some material was timeless, while some felt like it had been written more recently to update this, Chicago’s longest running comedy show. I, myself, did not feel like I was the target audience. Perhaps I’m too jaded or too cynical, unable to be shocked by much in these frenetic and chaotic days. Or maybe I just needed more than the one drink I had at the bar to loosen me up enough to be shocked.

Because the content of the show was meant to shock. The songs were mostly about the things we don’t speak of – the sexual taboos, the not-so-sexy urges, the bad relationships gone worse, the crap that makes life so sexy sometimes and so crappy at others. From UTIs to lactose intolerance, from failed attempts at self-pleasure to failed attempts to resist booty calls, from the fact that even our parents do it to a duet about booty, the songs hit on the stuff we think and feel and maybe even talk about, but very rarely drag onstage. But once onstage, the show’s performers didn’t hold back.
And that was the real pleasure of the evening – seeing these really gifted singers and comedians give it their all. Most all of them accompanied themselves or others with guitars or ukuleles at some point (one tune found SIX guitars being strummed while the logistics of a sixsome were discussed). And all of them can sing their booties off, both as lead vocalists and harmonists. But it was the ensemble’s willingness to leave it all onstage that impressed me most. Clothes were removed. Bodies were contorted. Audience members were dragged onstage, or made a part of the show where they sat. While this audience member might not have been shocked, he had a smile on his face the whole time, impressed by the job the cast did.

Individual talents that made an impression on me were many, even as the cast worked well together. Di Billick – one of the pre-show greeters – stole most scenes she was in. Jake Feeny and Alex Madda added spunk to their fine vocals. Andy Orscheln was often found with a guitar in-hand, and always radiated how much he enjoyed performing. Katie Maggart’s girl-next-door charm nicely complimented the show’s more risqué moments. Chad Michael Innis was a standout – hilarious and insistent, all over the place. But the star, for me, was Marco Braun – another cast member milling around the audience before the show. A burly and bawdy Jonah Hill type, Braun captured our focus whenever he was onstage with his beaming smile, his (oft-unclothed) physique, and his irresistible presence.
So, no matter my personal reaction to the material, I had a good time watching a troupe of gifted entertainers deliver it. For those who are more easily shocked than I am, then you’ll love letting these folks shock. And for those who want to support our city’s gifted entertainers, you can find them in the Cab theater at Stage 773 every Saturday at 8pm.

It turns out I did spend my Saturday evening learning what happens when those eager, energetic, and talented theater kids we all knew in school turn into grownups. They become eager, energetic, and talented performers who put on a hell of a show. And Chicago’s theater and comedy communities – and those who enjoy the shows they put on – are lucky to have them.

There has never been a better Broadway marriage of story and storyteller – until Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, three decades later, anyway – than Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and songsmith Roger Miller. Floating between aching country ballads, soulful slave spirituals, and the side-splitting novelty tunes that made Miller famous, Big River brought an American classic about century-old America into the 20th century, earning seven Tony Awards in the process. And now through October 15, Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, ferries Huck, Jim, and their story of friendship and freedom to today’s audiences, showing that the stories and the struggles of America haven’t changed all that much.

While Twain’s tale is titled for its teller – the author’s most famous creation – Huck Finn was the original Nick Carraway, in that he is best when playing narrator for the other characters and their quandaries. And in TATC’s production of Big River, James Romney’s Huck is just such a narrator. Romney’s work is fine – his voice is strong, his acting is as well, and he’s got boyish charm galore – but it’s when he allows the rest of the cast to shine that he’s at his best, supporting each of the people we meet along the Mississippi as they spin their yarns, share their pain, and make us chuckle.

The first people we meet are the orchestra, led by pianist and musical director, Bill Underwood. Part of the simple but gorgeous set, the group fits right into the rural riverside, playing guitars, mandolins, accordion, harmonica, and even the jaw harp. Their accompaniment throughout is just the right balance of polished and down home; they’re part of the set and part of the spectacle, bringing the surroundings to life without stealing the show.

Huck’s fellow townsfolk enter as the opening overture plays, each dancing and playing percussion – washboard, shakers, the tambourine. Liz Chidester’s stern Miss Watson is a favorite, a spinsterly hoot. And Kyle Quinlivan’s Tom Sawyer, who will reappear throughout, starts us off expecting a comical adventure, more puckish even than Huck as he leads the local lads in the energetic “We Are the Boys.”

Another member of Huck’s St. Petersburg is town drunkard and the boy’s old man, Pap Finn, played by Bret Tuomi. His swaggering, staggering rendition of the bluesy “Guv’ment” is the first real showstopper. Tuomi later retakes the stage as the King, a conman whose partner in crime, the Duke played by Jason Richards, struts and preens and malaprops his way into the townspeople’s pockets and the audience’s hearts, a highlight being a ludicrous Shakespearean soliloquy. Seeing grifters hoodwink the general populace for their own gain has never been so much fun – or, sadly, so timely.

But even as the cast entertains, the darkest side of humanity is always present. The ensemble cast playing slaves – slaves in Huck’s hometown, and those enslaved on down the river – give the show gravitas not just with their singing, but by their mere presence. Adhana Reid delivers a lovely hymn, “How Blest We Are,” while Camille Robinson provides a highlight in the reprise of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine.” But early on, as Jim and Huck hear voices from the other bank sing the lament, “The Crossing,” Jim knows these are escaped slaves who’ve been recaptured simply from the sound of their voices. And because Jim tells us, we know this, too. And we hurt right along with him.

Blessed with a big, beautiful voice, and an even bigger and more beautiful presence, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, as Jim, is the heart of this production, just as Jim is the heart of the book and the musical. Whether cleaning a catfish or chained to a cabin, whether telling of his daughter’s scarlet fever or telling tall tales to Huck aboard their raft, we feel for and with and through Butler-Duplessis’ Jim. This culminates in his rendition of Roger Miller’s finest gospel tune – and perhaps the finest tune Miller ever wrote – “Free at Last.” Shackled there on center stage, Butler-Duplessis shows us the sorrow this man has seen and hints at the hope that freedom may bring.

But perhaps for this writer, the most powerful moment comes at the end of the first act. As Huck joins the shysters in plotting their latest scheme in “When the Sun Goes Down in the South,” Jim returns to the show’s main theme, the yearning, churning “Muddy Water.” Jonathan Butler-Deplessis’ solo soars over his raftmates’ shenanigans, in a plea for freedom, for justice, for life. In 1800's Missouri or in modern times, there is injustice and there are those who stand against it. Yesterday and today, there is good and there is evil. And in that moment, I sure got the shivers as TATC’s Big River allows the good to rise above.

Big River is being performed at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN through October 15th. For more show information visit www.theatreatthecenter.com. A Wonderful Life: The Musical begins November 16th.

These days – these days of fractured politics and fraudulent politicians and fake news, and all of the fear they’ve collectively caused our country – perhaps we could all use a little comfort food, be it literal or figurative. And for a couple hours on Sunday night at Ravinia, that’s what John Mellencamp and Carlene Carter dished out – American music that was comforting while still completely captivating.

American music, of course, is Ms. Carter’s birthright. By nature and by nurture, the daughter of June Carter and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash was meant to grace the stage, and oh boy, did she ever. The strains of her guitar and twang of her voice filling the night air, Carter welcomed the crowd as they filed to their seats. Regaling us with stories of a life lived among musical royalty (one yarn involved a late-1960's Kris Kristofferson in leather pants and a helicopter), Carlene gifted us with her own God-given talent. Setting down her guitar to sit down at the piano, she shared the personal loss of her mother and stepdaddy with the hymnal “Lonesome Valley.” Leading us north shore folks in an acapella “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” she winkingly assured us that our rendition was alright, even though we’re no Carter Family.

This professionalism continued as members of the headlining band took the stage, decked out in black suits and armed with hollow-body guitars, a violin, faux-distressed drumkit, and even an accordion. The music of a newer number, “Lawless Times” from 2014’s Plain Spoken, began. And then that familiar face and comforting form of John Mellencamp strolled out, Telecaster guitar strapped over black duds that would’ve made the afore-mentioned Mr. Cash proud, as confident and cocksure as he was decades ago.

The opener was a newer song, but the weathered voice, the still-handsome face, and the populist politics – sentiments both working-class and progressive? How vintage! How quaint! – were anything but. This was the guy – the legend, the hall-of-famer, the working man’s musician – the crowd had come to see. And their hero delivered.

After another more recent number, Mellencamp dove into his back catalogue with renditions of “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town” off the once-ubiquitous Scarecrow, the crowd eager to leap to its feet and sing along.

After introducing himself and his band, Mellencamp traveled back in time even further with a modern blues take – just vocals, slide guitar, and upright bass – on Robert Johnson’s haunting “Stones in My Passway.”

Again returning to his own work, Mellencamp sang “Pop Singer,” which could just as easily critique today’s fleeting and narcissistic culture as the one nearly three decades ago, as could 1987’s “Check It Out.” The only updates these songs got were thanks to the mature and polished backing band Mellencamp brought and the weathered rasp that age has brought him.

The next song didn’t need the stellar backing musicians or their bevy of instruments to make it powerful. Clutching his acoustic guitar, today’s John Mellencamp told the tale of how a 24-year-old version of himself penned “Jack and Diane” while torn between dreams of songwriting stardom and the more worldly concerns 20-somethings have always had. And strumming said guitar, he allowed the crowd of equally aged folks to take the lead, literally, singing the lead vocal we all know…or at least thought we did. When the crowd skipped the second verse, instead plowing into that beloved chorus, Mellencamp corrected us before continuing. But that chorus of voices made “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” float through the summer air, sounding every bit the hymn or old standard it has become.

Carlene Carter then returned for a couple of tunes, including “My Soul’s Got Wings,” whose lyrics were once written by Woody Guthrie, only to be given the Mermaid Avenue treatment (given music and a proper recording) by Mellencamp on this year’s Sad Clowns & Hillbillies. A lovely overture by the band’s violinist and accordion player was played before the crowd again got the classics, in the form of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Crumblin’ Down.” When each of these was played, the audience leapt to its feet, especially going footloose for “Authority Song,” whose authoritative target most of them have become all these years later.

But that was not the point of the show. Who we were – and how that’s not so different than who we are now – was what mattered. And as we embraced John Mellencamp’s songs, singing with him, all together for one glorious night, he provided the comfort and familiarity that was underscored by the main set’s closer, “Pink Houses”: “Ain’t that America, somethin’ to see…”

For one night, we forgot about the world outside. It sure was somethin’ to see.

 

 

 

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