Chicago Sun Times: John Mellencamp Still Rocks, But Ages Gracefully
John Mellencamp still rocks, but ages gracefully
CONCERT REVIEW | Classic rocker, Lucinda Williams both sing of redemption,
July 23, 2008
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
It’s been said that by age 50 you get the face you deserve. So on Tuesday at
Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island, John Mellencamp and opening act
Lucinda Williams graced the stage like that grim couple from the American Gothic
painting — each of the accomplished singer-songwriters sticking a pitchfork into
middle age. They sang of redemption, reflection and the open wounds of love.
Mellencamp is on the road to promote “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” his most
critically acclaimed album in years. Performed live, the new songs lacked the
rustic ambiance of the album’s producer, T-Bone Burnett (think “O Brother, Where
Art John?”), but the trade-off was how deeply they cut to the bone. Mellencamp
sounded as searching as a lost Louvin Brother in the new “A Ride Back Home,”
singing over country-gospel melodies, “My time’s come and gone / It’s as simple
as that.” Yet having grown up in the Midwest, Mellencamp knows the power of a
concise pop hook. His new song “My Sweet Love” embellished a Buddy Holly
sensibillity over a Bo Diddley beat.
Mellencamp did not overlook his hits. He dusted off “Minutes to Memories” from
the 1985 “Scarecrow” sessions, telling the sold-out crowd he was 34 when he
wrote the ballad. “I thought I was getting older at the time,” he said. “It now
has a whole different meaning to me.” With a measured nuance, he sang about how
life sweeps away the dreams we have planned.
Such is the beauty of rock evolution. You can stare at an old song like a relic
on a shelf (Mick Jagger and “Satisfaction”) or you can view the song as a prism
of varied reflection (the way Bob Dylan rearranges his hits)
Backed by a firecracker band, whose MVP continues to be violinist Miriam Sturm
(a Jeff Award winner who collaborated with Chicago singer-songwriter Michael
Smith in Steppenwolf Theatre’s “The Grapes of Wrath”), Mellencamp charged out of
the gate with “Pink Houses,” “Paper on Fire” —redone with mystical overtones —
and a searing version of “I’m Not Running Anymore.”
Later, Mellencamp was able to recover from a strangely placed appearance from
comic Joe Hernandez (“Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam”), who read a poem he
wrote about Mellencamp despite heckling and hoots from the working-class crowd
The only new material that fell short was “Jena,” a mid-range rocker Mellencamp
wrote about the 2006 Jena Six noose-hanging case in Jena, La. Topical political
material can be challenging because of its short shelf life. Crosby, Stills,
Nash and Young succeded with “Ohio,” and Dylan had mild success with
“Hurricane,” but the best political commentary is metaphoric.
As with most Mellencamp shows, the concert roared to a tightly executed finish
beginning with “Human Wheels” and building through “Crumblin’ Down” (as
Mellencamp twirled into a suprised Sturm) and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” with
Mellencamp at stage right doing 1960s party dances like “The Frug” and “The
Swim.” During the middle of a high-octane “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp asked the
crowd to take out their cell phones and call a friend to listen in. It presented
a new if somewhat cornball way of reaching out and touching somebody. Encore
material included “Authority Song,” although I really missed “Cherry Bomb” in
his 90-minute set of reflection.
Williams’ opening set featured lead guitarist Doug Pettibone, who steered the
band through “Joy” and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.”
She reinterpreted “Out of Touch” with a deeper blues motif and workshopped new
material for an album due in October. The new tunes included a stinging Jimmy
Reed-inspired “Sugar Bee” and the haunting “Little Rock Star,” kind of a
plugged-in version of “2 Kool 2 Be 4 Gotten” from her timeless “Car Wheels on a
Gravel Road” album.
Williams and Mellencamp remain on top of their game because they don’t rely on
the rear view mirror. On Tuesday night, their audience looked into the faces of
the feisty singers and saw a little bit of themselves. And they heard how
compassion can evoke change, a spark that can get anyone through live, death,
love and freedom.
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