John Mellencamp once put out an album called Nothing Matters And What If It Did.
But that was a long time ago in 1980, when he was known as John Cougar. Since then, the feisty Midwestern rocker has demonstrated that a great deal of things matter to him, from the plain-spoken, propulsive roots music heard on his mature albums to the workaday blue-collar men and women that have populated his songs for decades.
Thankfully, the Woody Guthrie populist from a red state also cares about entertaining his audience, and his Sad Clowns & Hillbillies tour — named after the 65-year-old Hoosier’s scrappy new album — is a well-plotted, multi-act package considerably bolstered by the presence of supporting acts Emmylou Harris, Carlene Carter, and vocal duo Lily & Madeleine.
On a rainy night at the Mann Center on Thursday, Mellencamp led his formidable eight-piece band through an 18-song set that worked in most of the big hits from his mid-1980s commercial heyday, while also making room for Sad Clowns‘ driving rockers and social commentary, mixed in with rough-cut roadhouse blues and spiritual-seeking folk songs.
Dressed in a white T-shirt, suit jacket, and vest like he’s had the same haberdasher since 1985, Mellencamp took to the stage to a slamming blues riff borrowed from Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” for use in “Lawless Times,” from 2014’s Plain Spoken.
That song described a Hobbesian world in which “you can’t trust your neighbor, husband, or wife,” and added law enforcement, the church, banks, and the government to a list of institutions that are not to be relied on.
And with the aid of support players like violinist Miriam Sturm and accordionist Phil Madeira, Mellencamp stayed dark early in the set, credibly covering Robert Johnson’s hellacious blues about existential blockage, “Stones in My Passway,” in his cigarette-scarred voice. Later, he exposed fear mongering in the haunting, pointed, “Easy Target,” expressing cynicism about America’s willingness to to care for its vulnerable citizens.
But for all the torment in those songs about the need for self-reliance, the Sad Clowns theme for most of the evening was a celebration of community. That came thought in the ragged acoustic singalong version of “Jack & Diane” — musically a mess, but fun for the fans — as well as hits like “Check It Out” from 1987’s career-high watermark Lonesome Jubilee. (Favorite self-analytical Mellencamp line: “I forgot to say hello to my neighbor / Sometimes I question my own behavior.”)
And it ran through the collaborative aspect of the entire evening. The silver-haired Harris, who recently turned 70, preceded Mellencamp with a set that drew on her early honky-tonk years with Gram Parsons, covering the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels,” as well as her later atmospheric solo work. She then joined Mellencamp and Carter on stage for Sad Clown’s “My Soul’s Got Wings,” a tune where Mellencamp put music to rediscovered Guthrie lyrics.
Carter was the evening’s secret weapon. As Harris rightly noted, the daughter of singer Carl Smith and June Carter Cash is “country music royalty,” and after a long absence, the former country rock spitfire has had a career renaissance in recent years, often revisiting the classic country tunes pioneered by her forebears in the Carter Family.
On Thursday, she brought out Mellencamp’s fellow Hoosiers, Lily & Madeleine, to harmonize, joined Harris to do the same, and also sang several tunes with the headliner, on Sad Clowns songs she contributed to on and the crowd-pleasers like “Pink Houses,” “The Authority Song,” and a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “Land Of 1000 Dances.”
The 61-year-old grandmother of seven boasted the most robust voice on stage, and is as spunky of a performer as ever, despite now often focusing on gospel-leaning material. She advised the crowd that she doesn’t do cartwheels on stage anymore, and, “I won’t be wearing that plastic see-through miniskirt either: That thing done fogged up on me too many times.”