At Walter Reed, Mellencamp Shuts His Mouth and Sings

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007

A funny thing happened on John Mellencamp's way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center: He stuck a muzzle on himself.

Mellencamp has been a vocal critic of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration. But last night, the outspoken singer checked his politics -- or at least his polemic -- at Walter Reed's guarded front gate. During a superlative hour-long concert on the beleaguered military hospital campus, Mellencamp avoided turning the stage into a soapbox, opting instead to simply entertain a group of soldiers wounded fighting a war that the rock star doesn't support.

"We're happy to be here; we're happy to show our support," he said during the show. "Let's forget about any problems we might have and let's just have a good time."

Performing on a cramped stage in the Old Red Cross Building, an aged assembly hall at the center of the 113-acre Army facility, Mellencamp worked through 14 songs during a sweaty set that crackled with nervous energy and was nothing if not apolitical. There was no "Texas Bandito," no "Rodeo Clown," both of which are scathing indictments of a certain commander in chief; just jukebox ditties about "Jack & Diane" and small-town America and r-o-c-k in the U-S-A.

The show was long on patriotic moments and symbolism, if you were looking for it. A steady military rhythm drove "Freedom's Road," and drummer Dane Clark inserted an Army snare break into the rousing, idealistic "Our Country." During "The Americans," as Mellencamp sang of optimism, a woman near the front of the stage waved an American flag. Extra emphasis was given to some of Mellencamp's lyrics, too; during the old hit "Pink Houses," the crowd roared along to the line "home of the free."

One can apparently appreciate Mellencamp's music even while disagreeing with his personal politics -- just as it's possible for the singer to support the soldiers while opposing the war they're fighting.

Mellencamp, who is 55, got the idea to stage the concert after performing in January at San Antonio's Center for the Intrepid, a rehabilitation facility for injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. When The Washington Post reported a month later on serious problems plaguing outpatient care at Walter Reed (mold on the walls, holes in the ceilings, rats in the rooms, administrative ineptitude, etc.), Mellencamp vowed to do something for the soldiers. He flirted with the idea of staging a benefit show before deciding to play for the wounded troops.

Live Mold, if you will.

The special concert was broadcast live on HDNet from the building where Jimmy Durante and Bob Hope once performed. Aside from all the high-definition cameras, the setup was plain and unfussy, like Mellencamp's heartland anthems: no stage decorations, no fancy lighting, no costumes -- just a taut, six-piece band behind Mellencamp, who wore bluejeans, work boots and a black shirt (sleeves rolled up, natch).

About 200 people were in the hall for the concert, many of them "warriors in transition," as the Army calls the Walter Reed outpatients.

There were men with eye patches and prosthetic legs; men getting around with the aid of walking sticks; men with disfigured faces.

John Callahan watched the show from a wheelchair parked at the front of the stage. "It's a great morale boost," said the 42-year-old Army gunner, who took a bullet in the stomach and another in his left leg in Iraq. Callahan has been at Walter Reed since November. On Thursday, he was shocked to see one of his rock idols wandering through Malone House, a campus hotel for injured soldiers. "I had to take a picture with him," said Callahan, who saw Mellencamp in concert once before, in Springfield, Mass., when the singer was still known as Johnny Cougar. "The love and commitment he's showing to us is such a motivation," he said. "It's an honorable thing he's doing for us."

The wounded soldiers were surrounded by their families, along with doctors and administrators and at least one legislator from Mellencamp's home state. "I'm here to support the troops and the home team," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). "You know, John's from Bloomington."

The set was heavy on songs from Mellencamp's recent album, "Freedom's Road." But it also included more than a few old standbys -- Americana classics, including "Lonely Ol' Night," which was repurposed as a solo acoustic song, and the sinewy "Hurts So Good," which sounded positively Stones-like, thanks to Andy York's ringing Phantom Teardrop guitar. After the latter song, which closed the concert, Mellencamp exchanged symbolic gifts with a Walter Reed administrator, thanked the audience and left the stage. No parting words, no parting shot from the typically vocal rock star.

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