Songwriter John Mellencamp voice was still full at the PAC on Wednesday evening, but it was raspy and grimy in a way that seemed to add to his authority. Carried along forcefully with a full band behind him, Mellencamp delivered the goods to a packed house of long-time fans. The stage was set impeccably, with an understated, nostalgic theme, and fantastic production value.
After kicking off with "Authority Song" and "No One Cares About Me," the accordion player and violinist joined the band mid-way through the Son House classic "Death Letter," adding their unique flavor It was the strongest presence throughout the show. Combining seamlessly with the slide guitar and powerful rhythm section, the band actually brought to mind Before These Crowded Streets-era Dave Matthews Band with its dark underbelly and bad-ass drama.
It was their strongest tune of the set, but the overall sound was better than the sum of its parts all night. With 40-year bandmate Mike Wanchic on guitar, John Gunnell on upright and electric bass, Dane Clark on drums, Andy York on lead guitar, Miriam Sturm on violin, and Troye Kinnett on accordion and piano, the band was fantastic — not surprising, considering they've been on this tour for over a year, backing his critically acclaimed 2010 album, No Better Than This. They provided a great platform for Mellencamp's familiar growly power.
On "I Ain't Got No Friends," Mellencamp yelled, "How Bout You? You got any friends to trust?" stretching his voice to a perfect limit, screeching, "I ain't got no-ooooo friends, I don't want no-ooooo friends, I don't need no-ooooo friends," as the band brought the house down. They then broke straight into "Crumblin' Down," to the immense pleasure of the crowd, who showed their approval with shouts of "Cougar!" They were ready for a rock out session and they got it, not leaving their feet until the band left the stage and Mellencamp played acoustic for the middle half of the show.
The man himself crooned "Save Time to Dream" and a solo version of "Jack and Diane" that, even with handclaps aplenty, sorely missed the power of the band behind it. The crowd was amped up, but the energy level was brought to a quick lull, and it became apparent how good and necessary the band was.
While "A Ride Back Home" and "Jackie Brown" were better suited to the acoustic vein, "Small Town" was another case where the full band's power would've rocked, although Mellencamp enjoyed poking fun at himself, singing "Married a few gals, brought 'em to that small town ... thinkin' it might be me."
After an Irish-style violin and accordion interlude, the full band roared back on stage and delivered some great new songs off of No Better Than This, before a phenomenal version of "If I Die Sudden" from 2008's Life Death Love and Freedom. They finished off the two-hour show with "Little Pink Houses," "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," and several other hits, which brought that energy level higher than ever.
It occurred to me that I'd seen this story before: The old legend, putting together a phenomenal backing band that, in some ways, out-shined him. A few years ago, at a Bob Dylan show, I was amazed at how far Dylan's voice and demeanor had fallen, but his band kicked ass. Mellencamp was far better, still kicking strong, but the band was nothing short of fantastic. Of course, without Mellencamp (or Dylan), the bands wouldn't be there. How great it was that they were given a chance to shine.
On the way home, the sound that remained in my head was the shrieking perfection of Strum's violin combined with Kinnett's effortless accordion, the definitive sound of the show.