Hartford Courant: John Mellencamp Takes Gritty Trip To Heartland At Palace Theater
Hartford Courant By Thomas Kintner
John Mellencamp has been a voice of the American heartland for more than
three decades, a rugged accountant of its glories and discontents. His show
Friday at the Palace Theater in Waterbury was a rousing journey through the
territory he has covered over the years, a forceful reminder of his music's
strength and flexibility.
Opening the show with a straightforward rock quartet as support, Mellencamp
churned out the sturdy rumble of "The Authority Song," the haggard edge of his
voice providing the tune a formidable anchor. The raw-edged melodic quality of
his singing flowed across "No one Cares About Me," and forged an earthy cry to
prod "Death Letter" as his band filled out to its full six-piece strength for a
blues-lined backdrop colored by Andy York's resonator steel guitar twang.
Mellencamp gritted out lyrics in a near-croak alongside the measured blues
rumble of "John Cockers," and swayed coolly across the face of "Check it Out," a
billowing accordion line gilding the sound behind him. The set list favored
music with substance, spinning outcries against social injustice in the
rough-hewn "The West End" and a solo acoustic turn by Mellencamp on the mellow,
somber "Jackie Brown."
Mellencamp's last two albums (including one last year that was the subject of an
hour-long documentary that opened the program) have veered toward stripped-down
music under the production stewardship of T Bone Burnett, material that
blossomed in the treatments they received in a live setting. Mellencamp's
approach to "Don't Need This Body" was methodical while fiddler Miriam Sturm
colored its edges and York chipped in a fluid electric moan. Sturm's sawing made
for lively dressing on "Right Behind Me," which showed how far Mellencamp has
branched out from his days in the mainstream in everything from the old-timey
tale-spinning that preceded it to the relaxed roots gait of the song itself.
The show took its share of pleasant diversions from the 59-year-old Indiana
native's considerable roster of hits, easing through the sober "Longest Days"
and the banjo-lined, storytelling-meets-sway number "Easter Eve." The tail of
the show was built around a stoutly rendered parade of favorites, including an
offering of "Jack & Diane" freshened up with a roomy, organic acoustic palette.
After a long run of finesse, the pile-driver rock of "Rain on the Scarecrow" and
"Paper in Fire" as propelled by drummer Dane Clark felt like departures rather
than the baseline around which Mellencamp's career was built.
Stirring romps through past songs including "The Real Life and "What if I Came
Knocking" gave way to equally insistent recent fare such as the bounding "No
Better Than This," all sewn together by Mellencamp's sharp, elastic band. Its
fluid sound powered an expansive "Pink Houses," its throb defined by York on
resonator guitar and a hearty swirl of fiddle and accordion. The show eased past
the two hour mark as Mellencamp called it a night by kicking the dance party
rock of "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." into gear, its groove as flavorful as it was
John Mellencamp's Friday set list: "Authority Song," "No one Cares About Me,"
"Death Letter," "John Cockers," "Walk Tall," "The West End," "Check it Out,"
"Save Some Time to Dream," "Cherry Bomb," "Don't Need This Body," "Right Behind
Me," "Jackie Brown," "Longest Days," "Easter Eve," "Jack & Diane," "Small Town,"
"Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire," "The Real Life," "What if I Came
Knocking," "If I Die Sudden," "No Better Than This," "Pink Houses," "R.O.C.K. in