The Boston Globe: At The Wang, An Older But Definitely Not Mellower John Mellencamp

Boston Globe by James Sullivan 

Before John Mellencamp took the stage at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on Saturday, his audience watched a half-hour of old movie clips. Featuring the headstrong actors on whom Mellencamp has based his own persona — Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman — the montage has been a bone of contention on a tour the 71-year-old singer has hinted might be his last.

In Boston, a rowdy crowd grew palpably impatient as the old black-and-white clips flickered. But the footage, for those paying attention, was instructive.

“We’re the people who live,” said Ma Joad in the 1940 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s a line Mellencamp borrowed for a song from one of his best albums, “The Lonesome Jubilee” (1987).

“Hud” (1963), the generation-gap Western that starred Newman as the bane of his father’s existence, gave Mellencamp another song title, “Lonely Old Night.” In that clip, Hud’s father, played by Melvyn Douglas, tears into his son for his insouciance. Asked why he’s so unforgiving, he replies, “Old people get as hard as their arteries sometimes.”

It seems that Mellencamp, the foursquare Indiana songwriter who retains a robust following three decades after his commercial peak, relates to both Hud and his disappointed father. He’s still as combative as any young rebel; his signature move onstage is to end a song by winding up and throwing a phantom uppercut.

But he’s also a scold, rebuking crowd members who interrupted his monologues (“What are you, 12?”).

As the show got underway, Mellencamp appeared in the dark in a black mechanic’s jumpsuit, lit only by the red ember of his ever-present cigarette. His six-piece band, including violinist Lisa Germano, back in the fold after 29 years, stood in front of a huge projection of the backdrop from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” amid a weird wax museum of the film’s characters.

Near the end of a two-hour set, as Mellencamp introduced the band, he explained how guitarist Mike Wanchic has been at his side for 50 years. The bandleader wanted to play more songs on this tour from his new album, “Orpheus Descending,” he said, but Wanchic persuaded him to include plenty of his hits.

“People love to talk about old times,” Wanchic told him.

And so they do. They rose to their feet on the first notes of Mellencamp’s best-known songs — “Paper in Fire,” “Small Town,” the zydeco-flavored “Check It Out.” They sat for a solo acoustic interlude — Mellencamp commanded them to — as he told the story behind his new song “The Eyes of Portland,” about an encounter with a young homeless woman. Then he described how his grandmother, who lived to be 100, inspired his 2008 song “Longest Days.”

His father, he said, recently turned 93.

“I got a feeling John’s not gonna make it,” he said, referring to himself in the third person.

His voice, unsurprisingly for an unapologetic smoker, is a husk. His guitar playing was rudimentary at best. The acoustic segment included a singalong on “Jack & Diane,” his biggest hit. His fans sang almost all of it for him, lustily. Pleased by the effort, he saluted.

The old-movies theme continued with the voice of Joanne Woodward, Newman’s widow. Some years ago, she recorded spoken-word readings of selected Mellencamp lyrics. For “The Real Life” (from “The Lonesome Jubilee”), her voice boomed from the amps (“I want to live my life close to the bone”) as Germano and accordionist Troye Kinnett laid a dreamy foundation.

As the full band returned, they galloped into a home stretch that included more crowd-pleasers — “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Lonely Old Night,” “Crumblin’ Down.” The latter segued into the hoary garage-band staple “Gloria,” with Mellencamp delivering an icky discourse about foreplay.

Much has been made about how Ronald Reagan misconstrued the not-quite-patriotic lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Listeners often overlook Mellencamp’s critique of the American dream on “Pink Houses,” too. On Saturday that song went down as usual, with the full house, by now long past their disgruntlement over the movie clips, blithely singing along.

The band wrapped up with one more body blow a few minutes later on “Hurts So Good,” Mellencamp’s first big hit. “Now that I’m getting older, so much older,” he sang. It’s been 40 years since he first sang that.