Boston Globe Reviews John's July 14th Show In Boston

In splendid form, Mellencamp refashions his old hits and new haunts
By Joan Anderman

It isn't every day you get to see an established artist perform on the eve of an album release. Last night John Mellencamp delivered a master class in navigating the old and the new.

He opened his show at the Bank of America Pavilion with a favorite, "Pink Houses," remade in the low tones and dusky hues of his new project. It was the unmistakeable, atmospheric sound of T Bone Burnett, who produced Mellencamp's 23d album, out today. "Life Death Love and Freedom" (review in today's Sidekick) is a brooding collection of folk and country blues, weighted heavily toward the title's second word, and it seemed from the sound of that opening song as if the artist's concert would be as well.

Hardly. Not only did Mellencamp bust it wide open on song two - a smashing, bashing rendition of "Paper In Fire" - he made the savvy choice of veering away from the new album's moody arrangements before the disc had even been unwrapped. Half a dozen of its low-key songs were sprinkled into a set list filled with fist-pumping anthems, and Mellencamp played gently with expectations until the inevitable hit-stoked finale.

The rousing ode "Small Town" was delivered as a stripped-down demo - just Mellencamp, his guitar, and a voice that's grown rougher but truer with time. He turned "Young Without Lovers," a dark, quivering new track, into a communal effort, upending the notion of the standard- issue hit singalong (and cleverly introducing the new material) by galvanizing the audience around an unfamiliar refrain.

Not to suggest that the heartland bard has gone experimental on us. It was a John Mellencamp show, after all, which means comfort food such as "Check It Out," "Jack and Diane," and "Authority Song" were the main course. Somber new meditations on society ("Troubled Land" and "Jena") and personal suffering ("A Ride Back Home") were colored far more brightly than they are on disc.

Then he'd spring a surprise. "My Sweet Love," the only light-hearted song on the new disc, was given a bleak, shivering treatment, as if to shine a light on the song's undertow. And "If I Die Sudden," on disc a fuzzed-out gospel tune textured with distorted guitars and primal drums, was transformed into a raucous beast. Mellencamp sang it like a man on the edge, biting off chunks of melody and spitting them out. You know you're in good shape when untested material supplies some of the most memorable moments.

Lucinda Williams also debuted songs from her forthcoming album, due in September, and from the sound of it this one is a full-blown rocker. Stonesy "Real Love," the gritty waltz "Little Rock Star," and a raw, fast blues called "Honey Bee" were natural extensions of "Changed the Locks," "Come On," and "Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings," all included in her opening set. It was a window on a woman growing tougher and stronger by the year.

Click HERE to read this article online. Note the online version includes a concert photo.