Milwaukee's A.V. Club: John Mellencamp At Riverside Theater Show Review
11.17.2011 - by Matt Wild -
For many folks under the age of 40, John Mellencamp occupies a hazy “Is he any
good these days?” territory. Sure, the former Cougar has a garage-full of hits
at his disposal, but what is he up to in 2011? Is he merely a nostalgia act?
Plugging a new album? Do his videos still conjure up images of tractors and
sleeveless T-shirts? Does he still play that “sucking on chili dog” song? More
importantly, can the man still rock? Judging from Mellencamp’s stellar two-hour
set at the Riverside Theater Wednesday night, the answers to the last five
questions are no, yes, no, yes, and hell yes.
Following a screening of a tour doc shot in 2009, It’s About You, Mellencamp
took the stage to an expected round of riotous applause. (Fun Fact: Showing a
movie that features live performances of songs you’re about to hear is a slight
buzz-kill.) But what wasn’t expected was just how vital and energized Mellencamp
and his band seemed to be. Looking dapper and fit in a three-piece suit,
Mellencamp immediately kicked off with a lean, slightly sinister “Authority
Song.” All of the singer’s monster hits from his 30-plus-year career were
dutifully visited (save for “Hurts So Good,” oddly): “Check It Out” sounded
triumphant; “Paper In Fire” benefited from a tense and muscular reading; and
“Jack & Diane” and “Small Town” made for obvious audience shout-alongs during a
mid-set solo-acoustic stretch. Every performance was polished to a fine shine,
but rarely seemed rote or perfunctory. Hell, even Mellencamp’s off-kilter,
slithery-strut dance moves seemed genuine.
Though billed as the “No Better Than This” tour, Mellencamp selected only three
songs—including “No One Cares About Me” and the lovely “Save Some Time To
Dream”—from the 2010 T Bone Burnett-produced album of the same name. Meanwhile,
four songs were culled from Mellencamp’s 2008 album with Burnett, Life, Death,
Love And Freedom. That those newer tracks held their ground so well against the
hits spoke well for the singer’s recent re-imagining as a back-to-basics
folk-rock act. In particular, No Better standout “Easter Eve”—which tells the
apparently true story of Mellencamp and his 14-year-old son caught in the middle
of a brawl—stands as one of his best songs in decades.
Still, the night’s main attraction was Mellencamp’s voice, which remains one of
the best in rock. Age has only made it a stronger instrument, and it was
impressive to witness just how gravelly and pissed-off the singer sounded on
songs like “Crumblin’ Down” and “Scarecrow.” There was no encore, though trying
to top the one-two-three punch of “Pink Houses,” “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.,” and
“Cherry Bomb” would seem foolish, if not downright impossible. It was an
appropriately frenzied send-off to a night that conjured up anything but images
of tractors, sleeveless T-shirts, and, yes, sucking on chili dogs.