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Oakland Press: A Thoughtful Mellencamp Still Rocks At DTE
07.21.2008 - By GARY GRAFF
Of the Oakland Press


INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP -- In his new song "A Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)," John Mellencamp's protagonist laments that "My time has come and gone/It's as simple as that."

The same can hardly be said for Mellencamp, however.

In the wake of his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in March, the Indiana rocker's carefully sequenced and powerfully rendered hour-and-40-minute concert Friday night (July 18) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre proved that he's still a potent performer who's entering a new kind of time in his 23-album career. He can still rock with the kind of chin-out brashness that once earned him the nickname Little Bastard, but now that's fortified by the thoughtful veneer of the troubadour as social observer and commentator on his times.

Mellencamp and his six-piece band opened Friday's show with the slice-of-Americana anthem "Pink Houses" -- with an altered contemporized second verse about the "young man in a T-shirt" -- and closed with "Authority Song," whose punch line remains "authority always wins." In between, however, Mellencamp and company pushed that notion a bit, particularly with a half-dozen songs from his intense and intimate new album, "Life Death Love and Freedom."

Mellencamp also pushed his audience a bit during the evening. Playing on a stripped down stage whose main feature was a large, patchwork-style backdrop that doubled as a video screen, with a torn American flag near the top, Mellencamp and his band played with the arrangements of some of his older material, making changes both subtle ("Pink Houses," "I'm Not Running Anymore") and dramatic ("Paper in Fire"). He played a four-song solo acoustic set that included a folked-out version of "Minutes to Memories" and a stark "Small Town," while the crowd responded particularly well to the muscled-up versions of songs from the new album, particularly "My Sweet Love," "Troubled Land" and "If I Die Sudden."

Despite the overt political flavor of the repertoire, Mellencamp kept his own comments brief and mostly let the music do the talking. He did question the appropriateness of certain kinds of prayer before "A Ride Back Home" and introduced "Jena," about recent racial issues in Louisiana, by talking about his experiences with a black bandmate in his first group. But he later laughed off those who criticize him for stating political and social beliefs in his music.

And while there was a serious tone to most of the 18 songs, the concert was hardly a dour affair. Mellencamp has long practiced the art of mixing the pointed and the party and had that equation in fine form on Friday, as evidenced by a pounding rendition of the farm foreclosure lament "Rain on the Scarecrow." And late in the show he pointed out that "if there's nothing else to do...you can always dance" before ripping into "Crumblin' Down," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." and "Jack and Diane" -- interrupting the latter to have everyone pull out their cell phones and call somebody so he could offer a message of peace and hope (though he also took one fan's phone to advise her 17-year-old son at home to get rid of the girls and the beer because the show was almost over).

Mellencamp's 13-year-old son Speck joined the party on guitar for "Authority Song," ushering in a potential new era of Mellencamp music. He has time, though; the current generation is doing its job just fine.

Opening act Lucinda Williams got things off to a fine start as well with a 55-minute set that included fan favorites such as "Right in Time" and "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings," as well as a rendition of "Out of Touch" that showcased lead guitarist Doug Pettibone. She ignored her latest album, last year's West, but Williams did previewed some new songs, including the moody "Little Rock Star" and the gritty "Honey Bee," slated for a new album that's due in October.

And she finished with an off-the-setlist surprise, a rootsy take on AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)."
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