Mellencamp Straddles Anger, Sadness, And Joy At The Wang By Peter Chianca

At one point during John Mellencamp’s concert at the Wang Theatre in Boston Saturday night, he made a point of saying that it wasn’t really a concert and “more of a performance.” That’s something we might have guessed based on his unusual-for-a-rock-show opening act: a 30-minute Turner Classic Movies documentary in which Mellencamp talks about some of his favorite films, and shows (extended!) clips from about a half-dozen, from “The Misfits” to “Hud” to “On the Waterfront.”

It’s clear watching those clips how Mellencamp must have related to the loners in those movies played by the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Paul Newman, given how many characters like them have made their way into his songs over the last 40-plus years. It does make you wonder, though — as you watch Mellencamp take to the stage with a lit cigarette, and wearing a dark coverall that wouldn’t be out of place in an auto shop — whether he may actually just be playing a character himself. Is this who he is?

We’ll never know, but in the end — as he churned through an impressive 17-song setlist spotlighting some of his most enduring tracks — what really mattered was how he made his audience feel. And this adoring crowd clearly didn’t care whether Mellencamp was playing a role, other than the one of seasoned performer, and, in many ways, old friend.

One thing that struck me listening to Mellencamp Saturday night is that the heartland rocker — like his just-slightly-older contemporary Bob Seger — has spent a good portion of his career singing about being old, even when he was young. At 71, he’s finally caught up with himself: On a towering “Minutes to Memories,” when he sings “Now I’m 77 and with God as my witness, I earned every dollar that passed through my hands,” he’s embodying the old man he was quoting back in 1985, more than the young buck who narrates the song.

That said, his delivery is anything but doddering: He simply shredded the vocals on potent rockers like “What If I Came Knocking” off 1993’s underrated “Human Wheels,” and his “Rain on the Scarecrow” — which is sort of like Mellencamp’s “Born in the USA,” except for farmers rather than Vietnam vets — was simply monstrous, exploding via Mellencamp’s indignant delivery and John Gunnell’s mighty bass notes, thumping in your chest like righteous anger.

In fact, one theme of the evening was definitely that Mellencamp is, generally, pissed off — he even tossed off a well-placed “STFU” or two when people tried to yap through some of his quieter stories, although he did add, “You know I’m just kidding, right?” (Narrator: He wasn’t kidding.) Even on “Small Town,” which on record has always felt like a nostalgic ditty, comes off here as a defiant declaration: “I cannot forget where it is that I come from,” he growls, practically daring you to make him try.

It’s a fury that was well supported by Mellencamp’s large, loud band — in addition to Gunnell, guitarist/vocalist Mike Wanchic, guitarist Andy York, drummer Dane Clark, keyboardist Troye Kinnett, and the wonderful Lisa Germano, who returned to the band in 2022 after almost 30 years, on violin. (And it seemed even bigger thanks to the old-movie mannequins haunting the cinematic setting, a perfect fit for the old Wang.)

But the flip side of that defiance was a certain acknowledgement and acceptance of the inevitable. “That’s probably where they’ll bury me,” Mellencamp sings on “Small Town,” followed by a long pause that allows the impending nature of that eventuality to sink in. It’s a theme that continues in a story Mellencamp tells of his visits with his then-“99 and three-quarters”-year-old grandmother. “I don’t think John is gonna make it” that far, he chuckles, noting he’s been smoking since he was 10. (Although in his defense, he certainly doesn’t move like a man who’s smoked a million cigarettes.)

His grandmother story is the centerpiece of an exquisite acoustic set, and it made the delivery of one of his most poignant songs — “Longest Days,” off 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” in which he sings “sometimes you get sick and you don’t get better” — seem even more moving. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though: That set also featured Mellencamp’s 1982 monster hit “Jack & Diane” as a massive singalong, including a pit stop for a tongue-in-cheek lecture when the entire crowd skipped the second verse and went straight to the chorus.

If there was one dip it probably came with Mellencamp’s new song “The Eyes of Portland,” which felt a little too on-the-nose in its denunciation of “tears and prayers” as a solution to the homelessness crisis — a song about the sad woman who inspired it, who Mellencamp introduced via a meandering story he told prior to the song, might have been more effective. Still, it’s hard to argue with Mellencamp’s disdain for a “land of plenty where nothing gets f—ing done,” the added f-bomb a change from the recorded version to fine effect.

And the crowd, it’s worth noting, responded enthusiastically to both Mellencamp’s quietest acoustic numbers and his loudest rockers, on its feet for most of the show and, it seemed, universally delighted with his setlist. Case in point: “Check It Out,” his hit from 1987’s “The Lonesome Jubilee,” is not exactly a rip-roaring anthem, but the crowd reacted to it like Skynyrd fans hearing “Freebird” in 1977. (I’ve never seen an audience as delighted by an accordion riff, and I’ve seen “Weird Al” Yankovic!)

It was an energy that flowed between audience and artist throughout a terrific series of songs that reminded you just how many engaging tracks the man has written in his long career: rollicking versions of “Paper in Fire” and “Lonely Ol’ Night,” a Stones-y “Crumblin’ Down” with an extended interlude of Them’s “Gloria” for good measure, and of course a riveting “Pink Houses.” That song, maybe his best, is a treasure of late 20th century Americana, and Mellencamp’s current gravelly delivery is more resonant than ever: “The simple man, baby, pays for the thrills, the bills, the pills that kill” he intones, before returning to the timeless question of “Ain’t that America?,” whose poignancy pokes through even the song’s sing-along charm.

In short, early in the show, Mellencamp shared his hope that the evening would help create a “musical community,” and Saturday night’s performance at the Wang certainly did that — a community of joy, sadness, and the unexpected yet oddly fitting combination of the two. “Enjoy the little time you have here and God bless,” Mellencamp implored towards the end, and his heartfelt energy inspires you to want to take his advice.