Bloomington Herald Times: Mellencamp Concert A Performance Symphony

Bloomington Herald Times By Mike Leonard

Near the end of John Mellencamp’s tour-opening show Oct. 29 at the Indiana University Auditorium, he paused to reflect that, when he was playing nightclubs like Bloomington’s Bluebird 35 years ago, who could have predicted he’d still be making albums today? It was a legitimate question in addition to a well-deserved pat on his own back. You can pretty much count on one hand the artists in the rock world who have consistently recorded and toured for all of those years to the kind of critical and popular acclaim that Mellencamp enjoys. Another question he could have posed might have been, “Who would have thought you’d go to a Mellencamp concert and hear a beautiful little
Celtic-influenced violin-and-accordion interlude — especially between the sing-along Americana anthem, “Small Town” and the muscular strains of “Scarecrow?”

The second question helps answer the first. Mellencamp has never stood still musically and never listened to record companies or audiences who have asked for more of the same — an album just like the last one. It’s been a wise career philosophy as well as one that seems to stoke the creative fire in the Seymour native and longtime Bloomington resident.

The “No Better Than This Tour” that kicked off with two shows at the auditorium last weekend is the most creative and self-assured Mellencamp performance package yet. While the title is misleading — it’s a song title and not braggadocio — many veteran Mellencamp fans at the late October performances said it was the best show they’ve seen from an artist known for dynamic live performances.

The evening began with “It’s About You,” a documentary film by Kurt and Ian Markus that weaves performances from Mellencamp’s summer 2009 tour in with footage and commentary from the road. While the film is thought-provoking and well-done, you could hear the collective groan from the auditorium audience when the movie ended and an announcer said there would be a 30-minute intermission. With no alcohol available, and only candy and pita chips at the concession stands, a lot of people were wishing they’d packed a sandwich or a flask. The intermission might be better received at venues that offer food and drink during a show with a 6:45 p.m. start time. Many filled in the waiting time by viewing a display of Mellencamp’s paintings in the auditorium lobby — a nice touch.

Once Mellencamp and his talented band took the stage, the evening was his. It was a performance symphony in three parts: a rootsy, blues-influenced opening with full band; a middle section with Mellencamp either playing solo or accompanied primarily by a band member or two; and a rock and roll finale with Mellencamp doing what he does so well in rearranging songs so that even the “must play” hits sound both familiar and new. The first song of the night was a brilliant example of the “re-imagined” Mellencamp song. While “The Authority Song” has long been a fan favorite, this version was slyly blended with a riff from the Bobby Fuller Four’s 1964 hit, “I Fought the Law.” Not only did the two songs cover the same thematic territory — incorporating the riff from “I Fought the Law” gave the song a more roots rock feel than Mellencamp’s powerful rocker from 1983. The set moved on in a similar vein, heavy on selections from the album, “No Better Than This,” and liberally spiced with gems from the extensive Mellencamp catalogue. “Walk Tall” was stripped of its swelling, inspirational tone and sounded more like a happy waltz, with Troye Kinnett’s Tom Thumb piano providing a jaunty, saloon ambiance. “Check It Out” was toned down a notch from the 1987 original, and came off warmer and less anthematic. The audience still clapped along, their hands over the heads, and sang.

Clad in a crisp white shirt with its sleeves partially rolled up, Mellencamp chatted amiably with the audience during his quasi-solo set. Knowing that his political views can be both hugely popular and a turn-off to his fan base, he offered a mild apology (“I’m not going to get up on my high horse or a soapbox”) before getting in a political dig anyway. He said the Constitution provides for the protection and well-being of society, and while the country has no problem opening the coffers for protection, it doesn’t do so well in addressing the well-being part. It provided a perfect preamble for the beautiful “Jackie Brown,” a ballad about another person for whom the American Dream never came true.
Mellencamp has never been more personable than he was during his solo set. He repeated his often-told story about how he once laid in bed beside his aged grandmother, who always called him “Buddy,” and his grandmother called out for the Lord to take them both to heaven now. “Wait! Grandma! Buddy’s not ready yet!” Mellencamp recalled to laughter. Then, poignantly, he said his grandmother also provided the nugget of wisdom that spawned a song: “Life is short, even in its longest days.”

No one needed to know the rock and roll set had begun when the full band took to the stage and raised the decibel level considerably with “Scarecrow.” From then on, it was favorites time with the ensemble ripping through songs including “Troubled Land,” “If I Die Sudden,” “Paper in Fire” “The Real Life,” “No Better Than This,” “Pink Houses” and “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” (with another reference to the late Bobby Fuller). The rock set also was delivered with more warmth and less bravado than Mellencamp’s powerful arena rock of the ‘80s. And by the end, you could feel that the audience and the artist were completely satisfied with a mature and well-paced performance befitting an artist with nothing left to prove,
but a lot to offer.