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Winnipeg Sun: Mellencamp Fights Authority & Wins
04.26.2011 - Winnipeg Sun By Darryl Sterdan

WINNIPEG - John Mellencamp plays by his own rules.

OK, that’s not exactly front-page news. But just in case you hadn’t noticed before, the artist formerly known as Cougar (and sometimes known as, ahem, Little Bastard) left no room for doubt during his latest local stop at Centennial Concert Hall. Playing for a sold-out crowd of 2,300 — something of a maverick move on its own, considering he drew an impressive 11,000 to MTS Centre just three years ago — Mellencamp and his sextet staged an earthy, expertly paced two-hour show that tweaked the traditional concert formula from start to finish. Let’s count the ways, shall we?

1 | No Opening Act

Who needs some no-name warmup band wasting everybody’s time and taking up space with their gear? Not John. Instead, he screened a documentary — about himself! The hour-long film — ironically titled It’s About You — chronicled his 2010 ballpark tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, along with the making of his latest album No Better Than This. Granted, it was a little weird watching Mellencamp essentially warm up for himself. But honestly, it was no worse than sitting through your average who-cares combo.

2 | No High-Tech Show

When Mellencamp finally arrived in the flesh (to the strains of a Johnny Cash track), it was clear we would be kicking it old-school. Like, ancient. Instead of the typically modern stage set and lighting, we were greeted with a setting midway between a juke joint, a barn dance and a hoedown. Most of the gear (especially the guitars and keyboards) looked vintage; their backdrop was a tapestry depicting a small-town downtown; hanging above were drooping strings of backyard picnic lights. Footlights at the edge of the stage added a Grand Ole Opry touch to the look. Several of the band members even dressed the part, with Mellencamp clad all in black (guess that Cash cut was no coincidence). All in all, tastefully, understatedly retro.

3 | No Jukebox Jive

The old-school vibe extended to the music. Right off the bat, Mellencamp promised he was going to play plenty of hits and songs we recognized. But he didn’t say he would play them note-for-note. So instead, he recast them in a variety of rootsy outfits that made them sound less like chart-toppers and more like timeless standards. Opener Authority Song was turned into surfy garage-rock and — in a truly inspired move — gene-spliced with bits of Bobby Fuller’s I Fought the Law. Nothing else was quite that high-concept. But almost every single got a similarly magnificent makeover. Cherry Bomb was delivered solo and a cappella; Jack & Diane became boom-chikka country; Pink Houses was renovated with swampy hypno-blues; Paper in Fire smouldered but never burst into arena-rock flame; and the closer R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. brought us back to the garage. Between them, Mellencamp drew extensively from his most recent albums — No Better Than This and 2008’s Life, Death and Freedom — and worked through a rich menu of rockabilly (No One Cares About Me), deep blues (Son House’s Death Letter, from Trouble No More), working-man odes (The West End), Appalachian near-murder balladry (Easter Eve) and earnest folk (Save Some Time to Dream). Most arrangements were pared down to bare bones, anchored by a drummer working a tiny standup kit and simply decorated with fiddle, accordion, keyboards, guitar, banjo, dobro and mandolin. All six players — Michael Wanchic (guitar), Andy York (guitar), Miriam Sturm (violin), John Gunnell (electric and upright bass), Dane Clark (drums) and Troye Kinnett (accordion/keyboards) — were seldom onstage at once; instead, they came and went during songs as required, lending an impromptu immediacy to the show. Bottom line: If you came to hear the iconic drum fill from Jack & Diane, you could have been disappointed (thought I don’t get the sense anybody actually was).

4 | No Ego

For a guy who’s got an ornery reputation — and clearly calls all the shots — Mellencamp seemed fairly mellow. “I used to think of myself as a dangerous young man,” he explained at one point. “I was really just an a--hole.” Well, he oughta know. But on this night he was personable and gracious. He led the applause after his players’ solos (violinist Sturm also earned a few pecks on the lips; guess new squeeze Meg Ryan is the tolerant type). He shared a lighthearted story about his grandma. He brought a superfan onstage to sing during the closing number. He threw a few funky dance moves into one song — I’d forgotten that Mellencamp could cut a rug. He even changed the lyrics to Small Town to poke fun at his marital woes. So much for the Little Bastard.

5 | No Encore

“We’re gonna close things down with this song,” Mellencamp announced at the start of R.O.C.K. Naturally, everyone assumed he really meant: “We’re gonna play this song, then pretend the show is over, then come back after a few minutes and play some more.” Nope. Seconds after the band left, the lights went on, the backdrop was raised — and even though the audience continued to cheer, roadies began shoving cases onto the stage and getting ready for load-out. And you know what? Nobody booed or acted like a jerk. Not even the drunk loudmouths behind me. They just picked up their stuff and left happily. Which only goes to show: Maybe you can’t fight authority and win — but if you’re John Mellencamp, you can break the rules and get away with it.

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

Easter Eve

Jackie Brown

Jack & Diane

Longest Days

Small Town

New Hymn

Rain on the Scarecrow

Paper in Fire

The Real Life

What If I Came Knocking

If I Die Sudden

Pink Houses

R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.


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