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Variety Los Angeles Greek Theater Concert Review
08.02.2008 - John Mellencamp

By PHIL GALLO
Presented by Nederlander and KLOS.

Footage from "Easy Rider" was beamed on the wall behind John Mellencamp and his band during his opening number, "Pink Houses" -- a visual metaphor for the Midwestern troubadour whose unique vision of patriotism has been as divisive as Peter Fonda's Capt. America-garbed biker from 1969. Mellencamp continues the attempt of his last several tours to convey -- through his hits, new material and commentary -- a definition of what it means to be an American, and as he replaces odes about the country with more personal observances about life and death, his message becomes more personal, less polemical, and somehow his refractoriness becomes easier to swallow.
Those "Easy Rider" images -- part of a brilliantly assembled series of moving pictures, still paintings, portraits and live black-and-white shots -- set the tone for the 100-minute show as much as the song selection: Mellencamp remains a rebel with a cause, determined to confirm the accuracy and resiliency of the viewpoints in his songs. He has simplified the political points he wants to make -- end racism and government's resistance to change -- which reduces some of the chatter among the audience members interested only in reliving the 1970s and '80s.

Mellencamp pokes fun at his non-PC ways, declaring he is not about to change, which extends to the bank of a dozen bona fide hits that fill two-thirds of the set. Summer tour is meant to spread the word about the most convincing and honest record he has made in a decade and a half; it's titled "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," but its mostly about coming to terms with mortality, facing death with knowledge that the questions we thought we would answer in our youth still go unsolved for our children.

New album -- bolstered by the shrewd instincts of producer T-Bone Burnett, who fabricated a clear and stark sonic atmosphere -- was represented by four songs. Among them: "My Sweet Love," a peppy number that was thematically out of place on the album but right at home early in the set; "Young Without Lovers," which goes on to further gripe "old without friends," a horrific look at aging that he delivered with too much zeal; and the deathbed lament "Longest Days," a smart and soul-piercing observation on unfulfilled promise.

Opener Lucinda Williams unveiled two songs that will appear on her next album, due in October on Lost Highway. Her relaxed 50-minute set bubbled with several ace guitar exchanges and a fiery version of "Joy," a song she wrote for the soul singer Bettye Lavette.
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