For a year now, John Mellencamp and his band have been touring America with a show ostensibly to promote No Better Than This, the acclaimed lo-fi album Mellencamp recorded in various historic locations - including First African Baptist Church in Savannah.
The concert, however, is about much more than plugging a record. For Mellencamp, who's sold more than 40 million albums over a 30-year period, understands all too well that playing No Better Than This in its entirety, in every arena in the country, probably won't move a handful of CDs. The music business has changed immeasurably.
Mike Wanchic has been Mellencamp's friend, confidante, co-writer and band guitarist for nearly 40 years - he's the Joe Perry to John's Steven Tyler, the Mike Campbell to his Tom Petty. The Keith to his Mick.
In this interview, Wanchic explains how the new show works, and why Mellencamp has switched things up. Because he can - and he's earned the right.
And these days, there's no reason not to.
Things kick off with a screening of It's About You, Kurt Marcus' documentary film about the recording of the last couple of Mellencamp albumns (including No Better Than This) and the band's 2010 tour of U.S. baseball stadiums, co-headlining with Bob Dylan.
That starts at 7 p.m.. Mellencamp, Wanchic and the other musicians will take the stage around 8:20.
Oh, you'll probably hear "Pink Houses," "Jack & Diane" and a few others you know well. But be forewarned, this isn't a retread of John Mellencamp's greatest hits. "The casual fan may find it a little perplexing," Wanchic says. "But that's not who comes to these shows."
Mike Wanchic: "The whole concept behind this show is music, as opposed to hit parade. So many years in arenas, doing big arena rock shows and all that, that really kind of relegates you to a certain realm of your catalogue. The object of this exercise was to move past that, and into what we consider the great songs. We have a hundred and something other songs that we don't ever get a chance to play - most of our great songs were never really on the radio. Some of them were. There were 20 Top 10 hits, and there's nothing wrong with that, especially when you're coming up through the ranks. That's how you build audience loyalty."
Radio bye bye
"We call (playing the hits again and again) being a monkey on a string. You do what you have to do, you know? But now that John's an elder statesman in the rock industry, and a legitimate writer of the highest level, the material is there. No longer is radio a concern for us, nor is building a fan base any more. So the object is to go out and play to the people who really love us, really love what we've done in the last 30 years, and treat them to a very musical show in a very comfortable environment. It's much more mature. It's great adult entertainment."
Starting the show
"The crowd kind of knows what to expect. It's liberating in a lot of senses. The show doesn't begin the way we used to - with whistles, bells and fireworks, and full-on-heat rock ‘n' roll. It starts with a broken down quartet, with a cocktail kit upright bass and two electric guitars. And that's it. No violins, no accordions, nothing like that. We bust down to a real basic format. And we do play a few hits in that format. And a few new songs."
"The second set moves into even further broken down, with John doing acoustic material, and then ramping it back into duos, quartets, full band, but all in an acoustic environment. And then the third set is the first time you actually hear full-on rock ‘n roll, bass and drums. At which point we start giving it up! Look, you've gotta play the hits. You've got to in some sense. When I see Neil Young, I want to hear him and Crazy Horse do ‘Southern Man' and all these great songs. So I understand from a fan's perspective, why you do want to hear what you want to hear. We're never gonna please everybody because we've got 20-plus albums."
Strictly about music
"We don't want to knock people off their seats with weirdness, but what we want to do is respect the listener enough to know that our crowd is not stupid, you know? Anybody who wants to hear us play the hits has heard us play the hits. You may have missed your chance if you wanted to hear nothing but anthemic arena rock. I think at this point in John's career, it's about music, and it's strictly about music."
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe
When: At 7 p.m. (film), 8:20 p.m. (concert) Friday, Nov. 11
Tickets: $39.50-$125 at etix.com