In a trip down memory lane, John Mellencamp sticks to greatest hits

Nowadays, as the artists get bigger, the venues seem to get smaller and smaller.

At least this is the case with John Mellencamp. No longer known as Johnny Cougar, the singer who made a career out of touring arenas in the 1970s and '80s is performing in theaters for the first time.

His brief but busy "Mr. Happy Go Lucky" tour of seven cities - which began March 3 in his hometown of Bloomington, Ind., and ends April 28 in Chicago - was a quick sellout. Extra dates had to be added in Boston, New York, Indianapolis, and Chicago to accommodate ticket demand. In most cities, he is performing five nights in a row.

As fans discovered, though, intimacy has a price. Tickets started at $46 and rose to $102 for the front sections. But the high cost didn't stop devotees from attending. And they definitely got their money's worth.

On stage in Boston, Mellencamp rocked the house for 90 minutes straight, and his fans couldn't have been happier.

Unlike other longtime performers whose playlists concentrate on new material, Mellencamp stuck to his greatest hits, including "Hurts So Good," "Jack and Diane," and "Pink Houses." He did so even though his latest album, "Mr. Happy Go Lucky" - his 14th album to date - has received some of the best reviews of his career.

Mellencamp hit it big in 1982 with "American Fool." He sang simple, small-town lyrics to rhythm-guitar-heavy rock. On his more recent works, however (such as "Human Wheels" in 1993), his lyrics have turned more melancholy - painting a darker portrait of America.

Mellencamp, however, said before his tour that he understands why fans would be insulted if he didn't play his older songs.

"It'd be OK if you weren't charging," he said in an interview for the Hartford Courant. "You can go up there and do whatever you want. But I don't think it's all about me. It's about the fans."

"Downsizing" from arenas to theaters is something that many other artists have successfully tried as well.

Take Bruce Springsteen. He is an older artist, like Mellencamp, who took his show on the road last year to smaller venues. Van Morrison and Sheryl Crow have also taken the smaller route, performing to a couple thousand people or fewer, compared with arenas seating 15,000 or more.

Perhaps it's not surprising why many artists prefer smaller venues. The artist is able to connect with the fans, and it gives them a chance to experiment musically without worrying about the music getting distorted in a cavernous arena. The artist may lose out on huge profits, but an intimate setting often provides a relaxing and more satisfying atmosphere.

At Mellencamp's concert, the artist sat with the crowd during the middle of the show, while backup singer Pat Peterson entertained with her funky dance moves and rich singing voice. And earlier, Mellencamp motioned to an audience member to come up and sing with him.

Even though it was a trip down memory lane for most of the show, Mellencamp did alter some of his arrangements, adding a funkier flavor to a few songs. At one point, keyboardist Moe Z MD mixed it up a bit and started a "Get Down, Beantown" rap segment.

The singer who once was a central figure with Farm Aid and who helped define "heartland rock" has come full circle in his career. Unlike many performers from his era who have vanished into obscurity, Mellencamp has staying power. He has managed to remain current by mixing traditional sounds with contemporary rhythms.

*John Mellencamp and Amanda Marshall are on tour together. They will perform in Minneapolis, Minn., at Northrup Auditorium April 6-8; in New York City at the theater in Madison Square Garden April 12-15; and at the Rosemont Theater in Chicago April 22-24 and 27-28.

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