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Cape Cod Times 7/14 Boston Show Review
07.17.2008 -

Mellencamp's enthusiasm carries crowd
By JOHN BLACK
CONTRIBUTING WRITER
July 16, 2008

BOSTON — On the eve of releasing his 23rd album, "Life Death Love and Freedom," John Mellencamp played a smoldering show at the Bank of America Pavilion Monday night, reminding everyone within earshot that while he may not be a big presence on the radio these days, he's still a musical force to be reckoned with.

Although the 90-minute concert covered most of the hits that made Mellencamp famous, the 56-year-old musician made sure to pay tribute to all his influences, or, as he put it to the crowd: "music you know, music you don't know and music you'll wonder 'Why is he playing that?'"

Mellencamp set the tone for the evening with his opening number, his 1983 hit "Pink Houses." Dressed in a well-tailored charcoal vest-and-slacks combo with a blue buttoned-down shirt, the singer stalked the stage from side to side, belting out the song in a strong voice, encouraging the audience to sing along, giving the pavilion tent an infectious rock 'n' roll revival feeling that had even the most rhythmically challenged out of their seats and dancing along.

The high energy of the show kicked into overdrive with the second song, "Paper in Fire," which gave band members (particularly violinist Miriam Sturm) a chance to step into the spotlight and strut their stuff. Even when he seemed to be simply dancing along with the band, it was always clear that Mellencamp was directing every note of the music, urging the musicians to stretch it out or take it down depending on how he wanted each song to sound. To their credit, all six of Mellencamp's musicians never missed a beat, no matter what their boss told them to do.

Mellencamp demanded as much from his audience. He knows that playing hits like "Small Town" and "Rain on the Scarecrow" is almost guaranteed to get a response from the crowd, but he seemed to expect the same kind of enthusiasm for the new songs from an album that hadn't even been released yet (although they're available on johnmellencamp.com and on his MySpace page). The way he interrupted the songs with stories about how he wrote them — or stopped to teach the crowd its part in the singalong he organized — made it more of a challenge than it was worth for most audience members, but Mellencamp's genuine enthusiasm for his new material made them at least stand up and fake it.

The fans' efforts were rewarded in the end with a rave-up of five songs that everyone knew the lyrics to. Noticing that someone in the front of the audience was holding up a cell phone, Mellencamp stopped the band in the middle of the penultimate song, "Jack and Diane," and asked everybody to call up a friend, loved one or family member. When the connections were made and the phones held aloft, he got everybody to sing the song's catchy chorus ("Oh yeah, life goes on ..."). It was a little cornball to be sure, and who knows what it actually sounded like to the person on the other end of the line, but somehow Mellencamp made it seem not only cool, but important, too, sharing a rare but beautiful feeling with thousands under a tent on a warm summer night.

Louisiana native Lucinda Williams opened the show with a set of old and new songs (her new CD comes out in September) that were marred by a poor sound mix that had the bass turned up so loud it overpowered the rest of the band. Williams fared much better when she took to the stage alone with an acoustic guitar, delivering a wonderful rendition of "Passionate Kisses," a song she wrote that was made a hit by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Unfortunately, it was the first song of the night, and only a handful of people were actually in their seats to watch her perform. Of the new songs she played, none was very memorable, although that, too, might have been the fault of the sound problems. The band and its sound techs did manage to pull it together enough for the final song of the hourlong set, a funky cover of the AC/DC classic "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," which proved that it could have been a lot of fun to listen to if the sound had been better.
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