Bloomington Herald Times: Mellencamp readies for IU concerts to kickoff No Better Than This Tour

Bloomington Herald Times - By Mike Leonard

October 28, 2010

John Mellencamp during a rehearsal Tuesday at the IU Auditorium. He'll play two shows this weekend. Courtesy photo by Harry Sandler

John Mellencamp and his band had just finished a rehearsal of the first set he’ll do in the No Better Than This Tour that kicks off Friday and Saturday when guitarist and band leader Mike Wanchic walked up and suggested a slight change in the ending of a particular song.

Mellencamp nodded agreement before Wanchic even finished what he was saying. “I’m trying to get away from anything that sounds poppy,” he said as Wanchic turned away. That would be poppy in reference to the pejorative components of pop music — simple, snappy and commercial.

The first set to what is going to be an extended tour of theater and auditorium shows was warm, bluesy and rootsy — an engaging mix of Mellencamp’s stripped down sound on the “No Better Than This” album and some rearranged versions of songs from the longtime Bloomington resident’s deep catalog of music.

He chatted briefly from the back of the orchestra section of the Indiana University Auditorium, where the tour will begin. While he famously sang, “Don’t want to be no pop singer” in 1989, he said working the last few years with musician and producer T Bone Burnett has really refined his affection for the subtleties of more organic sounds and approaches to making music.

“No Better Than This” was, after all, recorded in mono, and was the first album issued only in mono to crack Billboard’s top 10 since 1964. According to Wanchic, Tuesday’s first set rehearsal was so significantly less amplified than their normal arena show that Mellencamp wasn’t even wearing ear plugs to protect his hearing.

He talked enthusiastically about the Speaking Clock Revue tour he recently went on with Burnett. A benefit to support arts and music education in the public schools, the tour included such luminaries as Mellencamp, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Ralph Stanley, Jeff Bridges and Neko Case.

“Nobody could play a hit record,” Mellencamp said. “But we all did stuff that T Bone had his thumbprints on, one way or another.”

Burnett, Costello and Case also are among the collaborators on the long-awaited musical drama project by Mellencamp and novelist Stephen King. While the theatrical debut is still in limbo, Mellencamp and Burnett are moving ahead with a CD of its music, including a jaw-dropping line-up with the aforementioned artists plus Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, Dave and Phil Alvin, Sheryl Crow and boxer Joe Frazier.

Mellencamp said the soundtrack has been described as the “Sgt. Pepper of Americana music.”

The Friday and Saturday shows at the auditorium will present a unique combination of film and music. The entertainment will start at 6:45 p.m. with a screening of a documentary film by Kurt Markus titled “It’s About You.” Shot on Super8 film during last year’s Bob Dylan-Mellencamp-Willie Nelson tour, it chronicles the making of “No Better Than This,” paying close attention to the recordings made at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded in 1936.

The musical portion of the show will begin at 8:30, with a rootsy first set from Mellencamp and his band, followed by a quasi-solo set by Mellencamp and ending with a rock and roll climax by Mellencamp and band.

All three sets will be performed in front of a backdrop that looks like a fictional alley scene from a place like Savannah, with dangling lights strung above the stage and minimal stage lighting striking the stage from the sides.