Last night, we attended the penultimate (got to use that word...yay!) show of this musical collaboration between native Hoosier John Mellencamp (he wrote the music), Stephen King (he wrote the dialogue and storyline), and T Bone Burnett (he produced the music) at our local theater, the Morris Performing Arts Center.
We had reasonably good seats. Pffft...screw that...front row, baby! We were right in front of the character called the Zydeco Cowboy and the band was right behind him. This was cool for me for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
This is a really dark story that is based on an incident in Mississippi in the ‘60s, in which a guy killed his brother in a dispute over a girl, then committed suicide with the girl. The musical brings it into the present, with a haunted cabin and another pair of feuding brothers. It’s a fun story (well, ‘fun’ being a relative term) full of ghosts and guilt, but it was so dark that we actually joked about it afterwards, talking about how pretty much everyone dies! My sister and brother-in-law went with us, and Tom said, “They should have killed the little kid off while they were at it!” It’s not a real happy story, but what would you expect from Stephen King? There were little snippets of humor sown throughout that were very much in King’s voice. I’ve read enough of his novels—like all of them—to know that sense of dark humor!
The real star of the show for me was the music. Even before the show started, they were playing zydeco recordings, which delighted me but also made me miss New Orleans. It’s not every day you get to hear zydeco music—even just recorded—in South Bend! The songs were classic Mellencamp. I could hear his musical stamp all over them. Even better was finding out that the band was Mellencamp’s band. So we were basically hearing a Mellencamp concert without Mellencamp singing.
As an aside, there was some applause before the show started, coming from the back of the theater. We saw some people standing and applauding. Turns out that John himself was in the house! We found out later that this was only the second performance he had attended, so it was an honor to have him here! When I wrote on Facebook about him being there, Cousin Shane said that when he heard that, he expected to see a picture of me with John, wondered what was wrong with me, and said I must have been off my game last night! I had to laugh...somehow I’ve managed to get people to expect pictures of me with musicians. It’s not that easy! Anyway, that was funny.
Okay, back to the music. This was Mellencamp’s band. No wonder they sounded so tight and the musicianship was so incredible...these guys have been playing together for some time, and they have the reputation as one of the best bands in the business. Mellencamp is known as a hard taskmaster, and he expects his band to be pretty damn close to perfection. They really did sound great, and I was especially impressed by the guitarist, Andy York. We were right in front of him, so I got to see him step offstage and bring out cool guitar after cool guitar. I’m no guitar expert, but I knew the Gretsches! He also played banjo a couple of times, and even a washboard vest, which was another fun reminder of New Orleans.
The music had even more of a country twang than Mellencamp’s often does, with some zydeco elements and western elements thrown in there. Although I’m obviously a rockgirl, I love other styles of music, too, and I’ve always loved Mellencamp. The songs were so beautiful and the singing was so well done that by the last number, I was wiping away tears. I love it when music can move me to tears, and I’m getting a little choked up just thinking about it. Maybe one day I’ll do a Music Moment about Mellencamp, because his music has meant a lot to me over the years, and I’ve seen him in concert several times. Never a bad show! We got the soundtrack, and I’m looking forward to listening to it again.
I will admit that I felt that it lagged a bit in the beginning, and really took a bit to get into the meat of the show. But right after the intermission, it felt like things kicked into overdrive. The story really gained momentum, and the music just soared. I loved it. Ken said he thought it was one of the best shows he’s seen at the Morris, and I would definitely have to put it right up there. The music was just outstanding. The cast and band got a standing ovation at the end...I hope John was still there to see that and know that we enjoyed it!
Afterwards, we went to Madison Oyster Bar for a couple of post-show drinks, and as we were all sitting there talking, a guy walked in. It was the Zydeco Cowboy! I went over and said hi and told him how much we enjoyed it. He said, “Oh yeah, I saw you! You were in the front row, and you were really getting into the music!” I laughed...yeah, that’s me! We talked for quite a bit, and he and Ken talked even more. We bought him a beer, and he was a super nice guy. His name is Jesse Lenat, and he’s known Mellencamp for like ten years. I think that’s how long Mellencamp and King have been working on bringing this musical to fruition. I asked how it is working with Mellencamp, and he confirmed what I’ve always heard: he’s tough, and he can be prickly, but he’s a good guy. He said they’ve gotten to the point where John seems to look on him as kind of a kid brother, so that’s pretty cool. It was very enjoyable to talk to him, and I’m glad we got to tell him how much we enjoyed the show...and I’m glad that he noticed how much I was enjoying it!
The show ends in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I believe that show was tonight. I don’t know if they’ll try to do another run of it or not, but I’m thinking that this is probably it, at least for the band. I’m truly glad that I got to see it, because I thought it was a great show. I highly recommend the soundtrack album.
I noticed in the trailer that Stephen King says that if he sees someone in the audience wiping a tear away, that makes his day. Mission accomplished, Stephen...at least with this girl! I shed more than one!