Chicago Sun Times: John Mellencamp Still Rocks, But Ages Gracefully

John Mellencamp still rocks, but ages gracefully
CONCERT REVIEW | Classic rocker, Lucinda Williams both sing of redemption, reflection

July 23, 2008

It’s been said that by age 50 you get the face you deserve. So on Tuesday at Charter One Pavilion on Northerly Island, John Mellencamp and opening act Lucinda Williams graced the stage like that grim couple from the American Gothic painting — each of the accomplished singer-songwriters sticking a pitchfork into middle age. They sang of redemption, reflection and the open wounds of love.

Mellencamp is on the road to promote “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” his most critically acclaimed album in years. Performed live, the new songs lacked the rustic ambiance of the album’s producer, T-Bone Burnett (think “O Brother, Where Art John?”), but the trade-off was how deeply they cut to the bone. Mellencamp sounded as searching as a lost Louvin Brother in the new “A Ride Back Home,” singing over country-gospel melodies, “My time’s come and gone / It’s as simple as that.” Yet having grown up in the Midwest, Mellencamp knows the power of a concise pop hook. His new song “My Sweet Love” embellished a Buddy Holly sensibillity over a Bo Diddley beat.

Mellencamp did not overlook his hits. He dusted off “Minutes to Memories” from the 1985 “Scarecrow” sessions, telling the sold-out crowd he was 34 when he wrote the ballad. “I thought I was getting older at the time,” he said. “It now has a whole different meaning to me.” With a measured nuance, he sang about how life sweeps away the dreams we have planned.

Such is the beauty of rock evolution. You can stare at an old song like a relic on a shelf (Mick Jagger and “Satisfaction”) or you can view the song as a prism of varied reflection (the way Bob Dylan rearranges his hits)

Backed by a firecracker band, whose MVP continues to be violinist Miriam Sturm (a Jeff Award winner who collaborated with Chicago singer-songwriter Michael Smith in Steppenwolf Theatre’s “The Grapes of Wrath”), Mellencamp charged out of the gate with “Pink Houses,” “Paper on Fire” —redone with mystical overtones — and a searing version of “I’m Not Running Anymore.”

Later, Mellencamp was able to recover from a strangely placed appearance from comic Joe Hernandez (“Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam”), who read a poem he wrote about Mellencamp despite heckling and hoots from the working-class crowd of 7,500.

The only new material that fell short was “Jena,” a mid-range rocker Mellencamp wrote about the 2006 Jena Six noose-hanging case in Jena, La. Topical political material can be challenging because of its short shelf life. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young succeded with “Ohio,” and Dylan had mild success with “Hurricane,” but the best political commentary is metaphoric.

As with most Mellencamp shows, the concert roared to a tightly executed finish beginning with “Human Wheels” and building through “Crumblin’ Down” (as Mellencamp twirled into a suprised Sturm) and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” with Mellencamp at stage right doing 1960s party dances like “The Frug” and “The Swim.” During the middle of a high-octane “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp asked the crowd to take out their cell phones and call a friend to listen in. It presented a new if somewhat cornball way of reaching out and touching somebody. Encore material included “Authority Song,” although I really missed “Cherry Bomb” in his 90-minute set of reflection.

Williams’ opening set featured lead guitarist Doug Pettibone, who steered the band through “Joy” and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings.” She reinterpreted “Out of Touch” with a deeper blues motif and workshopped new material for an album due in October. The new tunes included a stinging Jimmy Reed-inspired “Sugar Bee” and the haunting “Little Rock Star,” kind of a plugged-in version of “2 Kool 2 Be 4 Gotten” from her timeless “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” album.

Williams and Mellencamp remain on top of their game because they don’t rely on the rear view mirror. On Tuesday night, their audience looked into the faces of the feisty singers and saw a little bit of themselves. And they heard how compassion can evoke change, a spark that can get anyone through live, death, love and freedom.
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