By MICHAEL LISI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, December 9, 2007
ALBANY -- John Mellencamp has come a long way since his 1970s debut as Johnny Cougar, the pop idol persona forced on him by his personal manager at the time.
More than 30 years later, Mellencamp -- who dropped Cougar from his name back in 1991 -- is more of an elder statesman of rock than a rock star. At 56, his brash swagger has become a biting intensity, which Mellencamp uses at times to spotlight society's troubles and promote his political agenda.
That's not to say that Mellencamp doesn't sing about love. He does, and certainly did during a stellar, stripped-down, 90-plus minute performance at the Times Union Center on Saturday night. Mellencamp may be more mature, but he can still rock. From the muzzled anger of "Rain on The Scarecrow" to a pristine acoustic reading of "Small Town" and the pounding "Lonely Ol' Night," Mellencamp and his six-piece band let loose at the Times Union Center.
Los Lobos opened the show with a stellar 45-minute set that could have only been better if it were longer.
Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a vest, Mellencamp had fans on their feet -- and in the palm of his hand -- from the opening strains of "Pink Houses." The smallish crowd -- about 6,000 people came out on Saturday night -- was plenty loud enough, waving their hands in the air and singing along with Mellencamp on "Check It Out," "Jack & Diane" and an encore rendition of "The Authority Song."
A four-song solo acoustic set early on was a nice surprise, featuring Mellencamp singing folk-washed versions of "Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)" and the touching "Young Without Lovers."
Mellencamp offered up a nice mix of tunes, tossing in an interesting sampling of newer songs along with the anthems. A new rocker called "If I Die Sudden" was amazing, filled with tension courtesy of Mellencamp's throaty rasp. He railed against the racial tension in Jena, Louisiana in a long rap before kicking into a vital version of the rootsy "Jena." He followed with the satisfying "Our Country." Mellencamp closed strong, dancing and stomping through a quartet of '80s anthems -- "Crumblin' Down," "Lonely Ol' Night," and "Jack & Diane" -- which prompted one excited fan to toss a very big bra on the stage. He stopped singing to give fans time to call a friend on their cellphones and hold them up while he finished the tune. Simply put, Mellencamp rocked on Saturday night.
Los Lobos ripped through a killer set that had the quiet crowd cheering and singing along by the time it was over. Lead singer/guitarist David Hidalgo's voice soared on nuggets such as "Will the Wolf Survive?" and the joyful "I Got Loaded," while guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas sang the bouncy "Don't Worry Baby" with a timeless intensity. The band, which played Albany's Riverfront Park in August, closed on a party note with a version of "La Bamba" that segued into a cover of The Rascals' "Good Lovin'."
Michael Lisi is a freelance music writer from Rotterdam and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
JOHN MELLENCAMP with Los Lobos
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Times Union Center, 51 S. Pearl St., Albany
Length: Mellencamp, 105 minutes; Los Lobos, 45 minutes.
The Crowd: No shortage of fortysomethings and fiftysomethings, many of who were decked out in expensive blue jeans and button-down shirts in this crowd of about 6,000, out to hear Mellencamp blast back to the past with his 1980s rock anthems at the Times Union Center on a chilly Saturday night.
Highlights: Mellencamp: "Small Town," "If I Die Sudden," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)."
Los Lobos: "Will The Wolf Survive?," "I Got Loaded," "The Neighborhood."
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