Saskatoon's Star Phoenix: Rejuvenated Mellencamp Rules The Road
The Star Phoenix By Cam Fuller
Stripped down and overhauled: It works for hotrods and Harleys and it works for
something just as American — the songs of John Mellencamp.
In contrast to his full-on arena show from three years ago, Mellencamp showed up
Tuesday night at TCU Place with a concert that’s been customized down to the
Mellencamp seems to be inspired and rejuvenated in his roots-blues period. His
latest album No Better Than This is the first mono recording to hit the top 10
Mellencamp wrote the 13 songs in 13 days and recorded the album in three
historically significant places: The First African Baptist Church in Savannah,
Sun Studio in Memphis and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, room 414. The church,
the oldest black church in
America, protected fleeing slaves before emanicipation. Sun, of course, was home
to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The Gunter Hotel was where Robert Johnson
recorded 75 years ago. The sessions were captured on one mike and ancient
recording gear, inviting the ghosts to inhabit the notes.
Without apology, Mellencamp started the show with a solid run of his new-old
songs: The almost comical feeling-sorry-for-myself No One Cares About Me loped
along with a country gait. Death Letter was all drums and bass to start with
before the band kicked in, loud, adding mandolin, fiddle and accordion for that
Mellencampian signature sound. The metaphorical John Cocker hinted at how
theatrical the show could become, with Mellencamp adding extra grit to his voice
and hunching over to play a hermit who says he don’t need nobody, cut off from
the world much like a country that “ain’t got no friends.”
As far as entertaining the masses goes, it was a risky tactic — not as dangerous
as a suicide shifter but maybe close. The show actually started with the
hour-long documentary It’s About You, a cool but overlong road diary in Super 8
by Kurt and Ian Markus. It got rolling a few minutes before 7 p.m., with half
the house still in line for drinks.
Shot over a month on tour when Mellencamp was playing minor league baseball
parks in 2009, the documentary is a rumination on ruination, a lament on film of
a decaying America to compliment Mellencamp’s own musical views on the subject.
Kurt Markus looks at the ruins of yet another city’s downtown and remembers when
America was an example for the world. The “great levelling,” where other less
advanced nations would catch up to the United States, happened in reverse,
Markus concludes — instead of them becoming more like us, we became more like
them. Looking at a third-world version of Texas through the grainy film, you
can’t disagree. Markus calls it “a Texas pompeii, scary, thrilling.”
Not everyone was in the mood for sociology, however, no matter how artfully
rendered. With 10 minutes to go in the film, the fans who just wanted to par-tay
were getting restless, trying to get the crowd to chant “Mellencamp.” Too many
syllables to catch on, thank goodness.
As America crumbles, Mellencamp rebuilds. He started the show with a cleverly
re-imagined Authority Song, tuned to run like the late-’50s hit I Fought the
Law. Nice. Was not expecting that.
At times, Mellencamp was fighting a lonely battle against short attention spans
and the need for instant gratification. He was introduced as a champion of the
family farm and free speech, but had to confront a loud mouth schnook early on,
a guy who just seemed to like to yell for no particular reason. So the champion
of free speech said “Why don’t you sit yourself down for a minute?” before he
played Save Some Time to Dream on solo acoustic guitar. The thoughtful message
song would have been lovely but for the continued outbursts and moronic
The headliner remained undaunted, thankfully, and continued with a brilliantly
imagined and wonderfully executed concert that was full of surprises. He did
Cherry Bomb a capella. His arrangement of Jackie Brown, with only acoustic
guitar and violinist Miriam Sturm, was beautiful — unassuming but powerful. Jack
and Diane was turned into a super cool Texas two-step. Subtly brilliant was an
instrumental version of Minutes to Memories with only violin and accordion in
silhouette under one spotlight.
And, for those who can’t handle change, there was full-on rock by the end, the
momentum building with Rain on the Scarecrow and Paper in Fire, with the promise
of Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. still to come after deadline.
Roof chopped and fenders bobbed, following a dotted line across a land of
promises made and broken, Mellencamp is an American Classic.