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The Tennessean: John Mellencamp's Ryman Show Mixes Nostalgia, Americana
11.04.2010 - Tennessean.com By Dave Paulson

On his acclaimed new album, No Better Than This, and again at his Ryman Auditorium concert Wednesday night, John Mellencamp showed old-school Americana to be a remarkably comfortable fit.

But as masterful as his mix of blues, folk and Sun Records rock was, some members of his audience had trouble slipping into the sound.

“‘Jack and Diane’!” a female voice called out from the balcony between songs, pleading for Mellencamp's famous hit.

“I’ll get to it, sister,” the singer playfully responded. “Now that’s the problem with a lot of women — they’re just not patient. I’ll get to it!”

Mellencamp paced his two-hour-plus show like a three-act play, moving from a stripped-down roots-rock set to an acoustic portion to a celebratory rock finale. As a room that still looks very much like it did back in the 1940s through ’70s when it housed the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman is likely the kind of venue Mellencamp had in mind when he put this new, old-timey tour together.

Wednesday's show opened with a single spotlight on the center of the Ryman’s closed curtains, an offstage announcer making a “ladies and gentlemen” introduction. The curtains opened on Mellencamp and band, bathed in plain white lights, who launched into his 1983 hit “Authority Song,” stripping a bit of the song’s punk-inspired charge and applying a lighter, ’50s rock rhythm. It was the first of many musical compromises Mellencamp made with his hard-driving rock hits.

Those hits came sprinkled between a large helping of No Better Than This tunes. “It’s not my nature to be nostalgic at all,” Mellencamp sang on the new “Thinking About You.”

He’s certainly sporting when it comes to playing those old favorites, but when Mellencamp doesn’t have the crowd’s nostalgia to rest on, a new, determined frontman springs to life. The anthemic “Save Some Time to Dream” instantly brightened the crowd, and the Pogues-esque Irish ballad “Easter Eve” kept listeners latched on through six minutes of verses.

Poverty tale “Jackie Brown” was one oldie Mellencamp had less trouble revisiting.

“I wrote this song in 1987,” he said, “thinking about the same thing that’s happening now.”

That song, along with “Small Town,” were given the solo acoustic treatment. Mellencamp stripped down the beloved “Cherry Bomb” even further, providing an a cappella audience singalong and easily one of the evening’s high points.

That promised time to play “Jack and Diane” came around, and Mellencamp brought the full band along, but gave the song a radically new arrangement. Gone were the famous drawn-out electric guitar chords and handclap-driven beat, a double-time country shuffle taking their place. It was a bold move, and the Ryman was an inspired setting for it, but it wasn’t exactly the moment casual fans were waiting for.

In the end, Mellencamp rewarded all of his admirers with a crowd-pleasing, full-band final act that featured his classics in all their glory. The pew-shaking “Pink Houses” led into the closing “R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A.,” its power inspiring one female fan to climb onto the stage for an impromptu dance with Mellencamp. In those final moments, he seemed game to let nostalgia take hold.


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