Lehigh Valley Music Blog: Mellencamp At Reading's Sovereign Center: Can't Get No Better Than This
11.06.2011 - By John J. Moser -
Mcall.com Lehigh Valley Music
Mellencamp concert 2When John Mellencamp started his current No Better Than This
tour early this year, it was an exercise in defiance in the face of growing
As with his stellar two most recent albums, 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and
Freedom” and 2010’s “No Better Than This,” the show was an acknowledgment of the
restrictions and regrets of age, but also a statement Mellencamp was going to
take it on his way.
Seven months later, that tour, which stopped Friday at a full Sovereign
Performing Arts Center in Reading, has morphed into a full-blown celebration –
of perhaps not conquering the aging process, but certainly battling hard against
John Mellencamp in file photo
In a 22-song, hour-and-55-minute show, Mellencamp, who just turned 60, certainly
acknowledged the time that has passed in his life, but swathed it in a swagger
that said he wasn’t about to let it slow him down.
His hair cut spiky and the gray that showed in a February stop in Philadelphia
gone, Mellencamp seemed similarly rejuvenated. A third of his set came from
those two most recent albums, but he seemed to invest even more into his earlier
hits, malleating their meanings for his new life position.
The opening “Authority Song,” for example, both literally and figuratively
served notice. Its lyrics explicitly warned Mellencamp does things his way, and
its rollicking rockabilly, with a ‘60s guitar sound and kicking-good standup kit
drums, warned the same. It also showed how tight the band was – stopping dead on
a beat, then restarting.
The irony was that Mellancamp’s voice took on the grizzled growl of a latter-day
Dylan. That was especially true on the new songs “No One Cares About Me” (when
he sang “My wife, she took off to Memphis,” it was hard not to think of his
recent divorce from Gilbertsville native Elaine Erwin) and a ballsy, bluesy
“John Cockers.” On Son House’s “Death Letter,” he literally spat out the words –
expectorating on stage.
He ended the first part of his set with a joyous, goose bump-inducing “Check It
Out.” As the drums, accordion and violin built, the whole crowd – most also of
advancing age and already wholly invested -- clapped along. They even cheered
when Mellencamp, dressed in an open-collar, three-piece black suit, removed his
jacket – as it if was some symbol.
The show’s middle section had Mellencamp alone with acoustic guitar for a great
“Save Some Time To Dream” (the crowd, which obviously connected with the song’s
lyrics, whooped along), and perhaps the show’s highlight with a raucous “Jack
and Diane,” which he started a cappella, then kicked in with his guitar after
the crowd sang the while first chorus.
As overwhelming the response was to that song, the crowd as just as silent for
the following “A Ride Back Home.” Mellencamp sang in a wonderfully expressive
voice, and the lyrics hinted at the underlying fear that perhaps motivated such
a devastating performance: “My time’s come and gone,” he sang, “It’s as simple
After being joined again by banjo, mandolin and violin for the delightful macho
bluster of an emphatic “Easter Eve” (he so controlled the band that with the
wave of his hand mid-song, they lowered their volume), he again was alone for a
startlingly serious “Longest Days” and, alone in a blue spotlight, a stark
“Small Town.” He again made a reference to Irwin, changing the words to say
“Married a couple of girls, brought them to this small town … my guess is, it’s
The full band returned for a full-bore, blasting “Blood on the Scarecrow,” and
from there Mellencamp rocked to the finish with a string of hits. “Paper In
Fire” was ominous, with the band lined up at the front of the stage to play.
“Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” was infused with a riff from The Rolling
Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”
And “If I Die Sudden” was straight-forward rock, its lyrics laying out the
night’s premise: “I’m not afraid of dying/This life’s been good to me.”
He closed with five-minute versions of three of his biggest hits.
“Pink Houses” sent a rush through the crowd, and he was so intent that he came
to the edge of the stage and pointed as he sang. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” had
not only the people on the floor dancing wildly, but even the people in the
balcony waving their arms and rocking.
And, finally, “Cherry Bomb,” with its nostalgic line “We were young, and we were
But on this night, there was no evidence that Mellencamp isn’t still improving.
Throughout the show, he danced – not as if he had something to prove, but simply
because he wanted to, and could.
And that attitude infused the crowd, who, during “Jack and Diane,” danced and
sang “Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone.”
At least for a night, the thrill was still there.
Jason Moser contributed to this review