Boston Herald: Last Best Show: John Mellencamp At The Wang

By Jeb Gootlieb

When I wrote John Mellencamp wanted to be a modern Woody Guthrie, I was oversimplifying. He wants to be a modern Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Ike Turner, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Seamus Heaney. And last night at the Citi Wang Center he did a decent job of getting a little bit of each icon into his act.

From the opening notes of “Authority Song” he let those big chords ring and snarled like like a punk. His peers — Springsteen, Petty, Bob Seger — couldn’t never do punk, but a snotty snarl always fit Mellencamp. He was a malcontent then, he’s a malcontent now.

Unlike Springsteen, whose life seems peachy, Mellencamp’s got demons. His third marriage just broke up, he can’t fill stadiums anymore, he can’t write hit rock records anymore because hit rock records don’t exist. While he may be suffering, his art isn’t.

Mellencamp’s new stuff is as brutal as it is awesome. “No One Cares About Me” is a Leadbelly dirge with a Crickets back beat. “John Cockers,” with its refrain of “I ain’t got no friends,” is positively Waitsian in its spiritual melancholy. “The West End” was a soundtrack for a grave digger. Who’s the grave for? Mellencamp’s hope? Mellencamp’s America? Rock ‘n’ roll? Likely a bit of all three.

But Mellencamp also wants to be Elvis, he wants to entertain, put on a good show. And, good God, did he once he snapped out of the blues.

The electric set gave way to an acoustic set (with the crowd doing the lions share of work on “Jack & Diane”). Then he plugged back in for a massive block of hits done with brilliant rock force: the underrated “Key West Intermezzo,” a raging “Rain on the Scarecrow,” an equally raging “Paper in Fire,” a winking “Pink Houses” and warhorse “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”

But the tops was the amazing “Cherry Bomb.” Other heartland rockers can’t sell nostalgia like Mellencamp can. Maybe they’re too happy now, maybe they weren’t happy back then, but “Cherry Bomb” is a neutron blast of a wistful desire to return to a long-gone home, it’s a sentimental yearning unequaled in rock because, well, I think Mellencamp misses that home that much more.

And as he gets older he’s only going to miss it more and write darker, weirder roots music. I say bring it on as long has he always does “Cherry Bomb.”