BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
In his youth, John Mellencamp was a masterful brat.
As a more grizzled man of 65, Mellencamp is still poking out his chest and delivering frank proclamations wrapped in fiddles and acoustic guitars.
He might have traded the “life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” philosophy of his mid-20s for the slightly more bitter sentiment, “don’t expect a helping hand if you fall down/and if you want to steal this song, it can be easily loaded down.”
But no one can accuse Mellencamp of being anything but a bracing realist.
He unveiled his Tuesday night show at Chastain Park Amphitheatre with the above-quoted “Lawless Times,” from his 2014 “Plain Spoken” album (which also prompted his last Atlanta appearance in 2015).
Snazzily attired, as was his six-piece band, Mellencamp used his opening salvo to swing through a couple of “Scarecrow” throwbacks (“Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town”) and his riveting take on Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway,” from his 2003 covers album, “Trouble No More.”
The Chastain show marked the 14th date of his “Sad Clowns & Hillbillies” tour, named for his 23rd studio album, which arrived in April. While he shared a trio of new tunes – including the slightly bouncy “Grandview” with opener and frequent collaborator Carlene Carter – Mellencamp is always aware of his audience’s needs, even when it makes his insides bristle.
He put down his guitar and expertly seethed during the still-bitter “Pop Singer” and punched the air to accentuate a note while strolling the stage for “Check it Out,” which featured lovely fiddle strains from Miriam Sturm.
But Mellencamp was at his amusingly cranky best when he said, “The only reason I play (this song) is because I know you guys want to hear it.”
That was his intro to a solo, acoustic version of “Jack & Diane,” which the well-lubricated crowd that filled about three-quarters of Chastain happily sang along with, confirming Mellencamp’s suspicions.
His voice a familiar, meaty rasp throughout the 90-minute show, Mellencamp unleashed his muscular defenses of the working class – “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Paper in Fire” – as his band escalated the musical backdrop.
Mellencamp’s brusque personality might not make you want to hug him, but his continued authenticity is a slap of relief in a music landscape drowning in superficiality.
Sandwiched between Mellencamp and Carter was the eternally elegant Emmylou Harris.
The snowy-haired country-folk singer sounded as crystalline as ever on songs including “Here I Am,” Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” and “Red Dirt Girl.”
Backed by her ace band – the Red Dirt Boys – including keyboardist/accordionist Phil Madeira and guitarist Will Kimbrough, Harris was a quiet presence who was nonetheless captivating every time she closed her eyes to strum a note on her acoustic guitar.
Meanwhile, the sassy Carter, whose voice sounds eerily like her mother June Carter, peppered her quick opening set with funny stories (“My mama told me I couldn’t have sex unless I was married…so I got married a LOT!”) and rich songs including “The Bitter End” and “Little Black Train,” which she injected with guttural vocal flourishes.
She was also joined by the sweet-voiced Lily & Madeleine for a version of the Carter Family’s “Gold Watch and Chain.”