John Mellencamp has worn well.
At age 63, the veteran rocker still has the energy to deliver rebellious numbers like "Authority Song" with urgent conviction. He has enough of a sense of humor to dutifully trot out a crowd favorite like "Jack and Diane" even while admitting, "I can't figure out why I'm still playing it." And his weathered voice, now nearing a Tom Waits-style rasp, brings a near overwhelming level of poignancy to songs like "Full Catastrophe of Life," the delivery of which could only have been more effective if he had a glass of bourbon in his hand.
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More importantly, he still displays a tremendous joy in performing, as evidenced by his superb show at New York's Apollo Theatre as part of an 80-date tour promoting his 22nd studio album Plain Spoken, released last fall. Playing with a crack six-piece band, the singer delivered a nearly two-hour set that featured a canny assemblage of new songs, deep album cuts, a pair of numbers from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (the musical he co-wrote with Stephen King), a Robert Johnson cover and enough hits to satisfy the most casual of fans.
At this point in his career, he's more than a little reminiscent of Johnny Cash, wearing a black suit and vest and, after several songs, introducing himself by saying, "Thank you, I'm John Mellencamp." The association was further reinforced by his choice of opening act: Carlene Carter -- June Carter Cash's daughter and Cash's stepdaughter -- who described herself as a "third generation member of the Carter Family."
Beginning with "Lawless Times" and "Troubled Man" from the new album that features socially tinged songs in compelling, stripped-down arrangements, Mellencamp delivered a perfectly paced show that had the audience on its feet with its fourth number, "Small Town." Although his voice seemed a little tentative at first, it fully blossomed by the time he delivered a full-throttle rendition of the Robert Johnson classic "Stones in My Passway" prefaced by some slinky dance moves.
An unexpected highlight was "Check It Out" from 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, featuring the singer belting out the lyrics while prowling the stage like a panther and enlivened by Troye Kinnett's exuberant accordion playing.
He delivered the crowd favorite "Jack and Diane" in solo acoustic fashion, humorously chiding the audience when they jumped in too soon on the inevitable sing-along. "There's two verses and a chorus," he admonished with a smile. "You have to wait for the chorus."
He brought Carter back to the stage for the numbers from Ghost Brothers, letting her handle the lead vocals on the ballad "Away From This World" and dueting with her on the barn-burning "Tear This Cabin Down." Explaining that he and King worked on the musical for fifteen years, he said that the lesson he came away with is, "Art is never finished, it's just abandoned."
The singer's preoccupation with aging and death was evident not only by his inclusion of songs like "If I Die Sudden," but also the sly way he took a lengthy pause after the lyrics "That's probably where you'll bury me" during his rendition of "Small Town." One of the show's most moving moments came when he paid tribute to his grandmother who lived to be 100 years old, quoting her adage that "life is short even in its longest days" in the bittersweet "Longest Days."
After having previously promised the audience the opportunity to dance, he made good with a rollicking "Authority Song" that included an interpolation of Wilson Pickett's classic "Land of 1,000 Dances." It was part of a show-ending barrage of hits including "Crumbling Down" and "Pink Houses."
The familiar music, delivered in slightly tweaked arrangements that gave them freshness, was perfectly delivered by the superb band that included the invaluable violinist Miriam Sturm, drummer Dane Clark and guitarist Mike Wanchic, who's been playing with Mellencamp for no fewer than 45 years.
Saying that "I hate to admit it, but I guess I'm as sentimental as the next guy," the singer joked about the meaning of the expression "old times" inevitably changing as one gets older.
"On that note, we're gonna end the show tonight with a song about old times," he announced before launching into the joyously nostalgic "Cherry Bomb." It was a perfect capper to the triumphant, career-spanning show.
The tour hits Los Angeles' Nokia Theatre on July 28.
"Minutes to Memories"
"Stones in My Passway"
"The Isolation of Mister"
"Check It Out"
"Jack and Diane"
"Full Catrastophe of Life"
"Away From the World"
"Tear This Cabin Down"
"Paper in Fire"
"If I Die Sudden"