From a persistent pop star pigeonholed by the nom de plume given him early on, to the Cougar-less blue-collar troubadour bent on asserting his social conscious as his career evolved, John Mellencamp has always been most concerned with asserting his integrity. Having achieved equal status with his prodigious peers — Springsteen, Fogerty, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and the like — Mellencamp’s taken up the cause of the Everyman and with it, adopted the guise of Woody Guthrie incarnate, a serious purveyor of socially conscious rock and rebellion in these highly turbulent times.
At this point in his career, Mellencamp likely thought it was time take a reflective look back and, at the same time, consolidate his standing. He’s released other live albums before, but here he adds a narrative thread, reflecting on his life and career as evolved from his midwestern roots to the signature stance he takes today. Naturally, this Blu-ray and CD combo boast all the essential songs — fiery versions of “Authority Song,” “Check It Out,” Paper in Fire,” “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Cherry Bomb” (no “Jack and Dianne” surprisingly), as well as a select number of newer anthems as well. Mellencamp’s voiceover can be distracting at times, and the self-aggrandizement tends to be a bit much, but regardless, hearing him track his progress from his modest origins through his ascent to superstardom is often inspiring. And if Springsteen can do it and sell out months of solo performances on Broadway, why not give Mellencamp a chance to reap his rewards as well.
For those who would rather skip the soliloquy, the Blu-Ray does offer the opportunity to watch the performances and enjoy the show without the narrative. And indeed, with Carlene Carter in tow, and a terrific set list to share, Plain Spoken, From the Chicago Theater functions as a fine concert film all on its own. Mellencamp may have veered from the mainstream, but he’s negated his singular stance.