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John Mellencamp, Mike Wanchic to make Keller stop April 23; they've been together for more than 40 years, meeting in the days after college

COURTESY: BRIAN BRUNER - Guitarist Mike Wanchic (left) has been John Mellencamp's bandmate for 43 years. Says Wanchic: 'Everything has never been better.'John Mellencamp and his bandmates have never forgotten their Indiana roots, and it remains true today.

"In 1986 we stopped making records anywhere but Bloomington," guitarist Mike Wanchic says. "People drifted off, and we added members, but they all had Indiana roots. It's the reason we've stayed unique, and developed at our own pace without outside elements."

Mellencamp, Wanchic and the band come to Portland to play at Keller Auditorium, Tuesday, April 23.

Wanchic, who has known Mellencamp since the days just after each left college, says they have stayed Midwest folks because they never moved west or east and became influenced by Los Angeles and New York types.

"We never succumbed and moved to the coast," Wanchic says. "We stayed in Bloomington, Indiana, and we were the biggest band in the county, man. We weren't cognizant of it at the time, but in hindsight, we weren't hanging out at the Rainbow Room or Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard, and didn't get into the glam scene."

It's the band that gave us the 1980s hits "Hurts So Good," "Jack & Diane," "Pink Houses," "Small Town" "R.O.C.K. in the USA," "Authority Song" and more.

It all began in the late 1970s with "I Need a Lover," when Mellencamp went by the name John Cougar. (He changed to John Cougar Mellencamp in 1983 and then dropped the Cougar). He and Wanchic had met in 1976 at a recording studio when Wanchic was fresh out of DePauw University and Mellencamp from Vincennes University.

Their status as a band was tenuous until the hits started coming, such as "Ain't Even Done With the Night." Nicknamed "Chief," Wanchic says: "We made four albums before we had any success at all. When we made 'American Fool,' we thought it was our last shot." Instead, the album that produced "Hurts So Good" and "Jack & Diane" skyrocketed them to fame, thanks in part to MTV.

"Since that point, nobody has said 'boo' to us about how to make a record, not a single word," Wanchic says.

They have never rested on their laurels, as 23 albums proves, the latest being "Sad Clowns and Hillbillies." Mellencamp, who's also an avid painter, also has earned a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, among many other honors.

"This is a machine out here," Wanchic says. "The great part of this band (is), when you over-rehearse, you don't have to do anything on stage except your performance. Everything is really well-rehearsed.

"What makes it difficult is with 23 albums ... what do you play? You have to play hits, but we're also satisfying ourselves artistically. You have to find a balance of albums. We put together a really good show."

Indeed, "a band that plays existing material has no new material. We're continuing to make new records," he adds. "(John's) still a vital writer, better than ever. When you turn 60 (Mellencamp is 67), who says talent falls off? The band is better. Everything has never been better."

"The John Mellencamp Show" stops at the Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St., 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 23. Tickets are $39.50-$129.50 and available at www.portland5.com.

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