By Lethbridge Herald on October 5, 2018.
Guitarist has been with heartland rocker since the beginning
When John Mellencamp steps onto the Enmax Centre stage later this month, Mike Wanchic will be where he’s been for more than 40 years — to the left of the heartland rocker playing his guitar and performing his role as band leader.
The career of Mellencamp, which started with the 1976 album “Chestnut Street Incident” when he was known as Johnny Cougar, has produced some of rock’s most indelible songs in the past four decades. And all through Mellencamp’s journey, Wanchic has been at his side.
The two met in 1976 in Bloomington, Indiana and forged a friendship and musical partnership that has endured countless recording sessions and tours.
The latest jaunt, called the “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies Tour,” is named after the 2017 album, a collaboration with Carlene Carter which features five duets among its 13 compelling songs.
On this tour, Mellencamp and company will be performing songs from that album along with a range of tunes from his vast and diverse repertoire.
“It’s important to service everybody in the audience if we can,” said Wanchic last week in a telephone interview from New Brunswick.
“There are multiple aspects to what we do. We play the songs we need to do and we fulfill us artistically,” said Wanchic.
“We give a broad perspective of John over the years. He has a deep, deep catalogue and we realize our fans are coming to the show.”
That catalogue features a diverse range of songs such “I Need a Lover,” a hit on his 1978 recording “A Biography,” “Rain on the Scarecrow, ” “Authority Song,” “Pink Houses,” “Pop Singer,” “Hand to Hold on To,” “Rumble Seat,” and of course, “Jack and Diane.”
Yes, “Jack and Diane” from the 1982 album that propelled Mellencamp — then still going by the stage name a record executive bestowed upon him — into stardom, the chart-topping “American Fool.”
After four largely unsuccessful albums, “American Fool” is the record that put Mellencamp and his band on the map. And it’s an album his record label didn’t want him to record.
But as Wanchic recalled, Mellencamp stood his ground and created the album he wanted to make.
“‘Jack and Diane’ changed our careers. When we made that record, we thought it would be our last. Our first four records had stiffed so with ‘American Fool,’ we did it our way. John wrote the songs, and we recorded them against the wishes of the record company.”
That record exploded onto the charts, maintaining the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album chart for nine weeks.
“We haven’t looked back since,” said Wanchic.
The band hasn’t left behind its roots, either. All the band members still live in the U.S. Midwest, with Wanchic calling Bloomington his home.
“We’re not a metro-sexual band, we never picked up and headed to L.A. We were known as a rust-belt band in the early days,” said Wanchic.
That blue-collar approach to music has created legions of fans over the years and Mellencamp’s songwriting and craftsmanship have landed him kudos including an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
With the 66-year-old Mellencamp providing the songs and Wanchic the arrangements, “between the two of us everything is taken care of.” While Wanchic is the longest serving member of the band, other performers have also been with Mellencap for years, which creates the type of cohesive, mature musicianship fans will hear and appreciate on stage.
After four decades, he feels Mellencamp’s music is still relevant.
“We feel really grateful we can go out and play. New bands can’t sell records but the legacy of the music we have made has allowed us to keep playing.”
That legacy continues to grow with “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies,” the tune “What Kind of Man Am I?” providing a wisened bookend to the songs of Mellencamp’s youth.
Tickets for the Mellencamp show are $82.50 and $92.50 at the Ticket Centre, 403-329-7328. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Follow albeebHerald on Twitter.