John Mellencamp ended his robust show at the Fox Theatre with a snippet of nostalgia and a humorous take on looking back – “The only problem with old times is that we gotta be old to have ‘em.”
But for the previous two hours, Mellencamp demonstrated that even an artist with one of the most durable catalogs in classic rock can produce relevant material nearly four decades into a career.
Mellencamp and his solid six-piece band – nattily attired in black suits, and, in the case of world-class violinist Miriam Sturm, an elegant dress – spun through a set list that adequately touched on every decade of his hall of fame output.
He opened the show with a double punch from his current album, the visceral “Plain Spoken,” released last year. Initially, Mellencamp sounded as if he were producing his best Tom Waits impersonation on the swinging “Lawless Times” and the insightful “Troubled Man.” But then his weathered rasp – the product of countless years of smoking – settled in to lead the jaunty roots-rocker “Minutes to Memories.”
At 63, Mellencamp appears to still enjoy performing. His subconscious finger snaps and sways to the rhythm of songs ingrained in his DNA, along with a few grins and gracious bows and a testament to the power of drumming late in the show, illustrated his satisfaction. He even broke out his patented sideways slide leading into Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” a song he covered on 2003’s “Trouble No More” album.
Those fans aching to hear a radio hit were rewarded four songs into the show, when the opening guitar strums and chug of the high hat that signaled “Small Town” spurred them out of their seats. By then, Mellencamp and the band sounded record perfect, with some added grit.
The stage lights shone brightly during “Check it Out,” with Troye Kinnett’s accordion gluing the melody together, and Mellencamp, effortlessly cool, strolling the stage.
While the hearty sing-along to an acoustic “Jack and Diane” (and its timeless lyric, “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone”) was expected fun, it was a couple of album tracks that showcased Mellencamp’s depth.
The Springsteen-esque “Longest Days,” which shared the wisdom of his grandmother, who died at age 100, was a beautifully poignant moment. And Mellencamp’s whiskey-soaked vocals and puffs on a cigarette were the ideal backdrop to fit the film noir -ish mood of “The Full Catastrophe.”
Mellencamp also reminded the crowd of his theatrical debut with Stephen King and T Bone Burnett, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which premiered at the Alliance Theatre in 2012.
After making the cryptic statement that “art is never finished, it’s just abandoned,” he brought out opener Carlene Carter to share her lovely vocals on “Away From This World” and Eric Moore for the brooding thumper “Tear This Cabin Down.”
For the final third of the concert, Mellencamp, by now free of his jacket and in white T-shirt and vest, lasered into a hits parade, launched with the still-evocative “Rain on the Scarecrow” and haunting, fiddle-heavy “Paper in Fire.”
Mellencamp’s angry young man attitude still bled through a fiery version of “Crumblin’ Down” – anchored by some stellar drumming from Dave Clark – and the angst-y bravado and that wonderfully bendy guitar riff that are hallmarks of “Authority Song” were both mightily intact.
This “Plain Spoken” tour will keep Mellencamp on the road through August. But if Friday night’s show was an indication, he still has plenty of muscle left for the run.
Carter, meanwhile, offered a lovely set of heartfelt songs, including “Carter Girl,” an emotional piano ballad about her mother, June.
A sparse stage, a pure voice, a guitar and piano were all that Carter needed (husband Joe Breen provided a vocal assist on a couple of songs as well).
It’s unfortunate that a constant murmur of chatter among the crowd distracted from Carter’s raw performance. But Carter, who admitted to feeling “feisty,” ignored the rudeness and plowed through the classic Carter Family tune, “The Storms Are on the Ocean” before closing her set back behind the piano for the sensitive autobiographical song, “Change.”
Don’t worry, Carlene. Some of us were listening.