Chicago Tribune Concert Review

No small-town sound
Mellencamp ramps it up along the lake

By Andy Downing | Special to the Chicago Tribune
July 24, 2008

John Mellencamp, performing in front of a sold-out crowd Tuesday at Charter One Pavilion at Northerly Island, had to have seen the irony in singing about small-town America against the skyline of one of its biggest cities.

The singer, touring in support of the recently released "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," wisely beefed up the album's folksy arrangements so that the songs could stand toe-to-toe with stadium-ready anthems like "Pink Houses." "If I Die Sudden," a loping waltz on record, was reimagined here as a three-guitar flare-up, Mellencamp defiantly staring down his final days as he sang, "I'm not afraid of dying" like a man who has no fear of a pine box. "Paper in Fire," given a Celtic flair by the frontman's six-piece backing band, was driven by the fiery violin-playing of Miriam Sturm. "Jena," inspired by the racial tensions surrounding the Jena Six trial in Louisiana, played as a flip-side to "Small Town" (performed here in solo acoustic form), revealing the sometimes ugly side of remote locales.

Mellencamp never resorted to preaching. Instead, the singer told homespun stories about performing in seedy bars as a teenager, belted out a few bars from "My Girl" and offered that "when all else fails . . . dance." The audience took the singer's advice as he worked in old favorites like "Jack and Diane," "R.O.C.K. in the USA" and "Crumblin' Down."

During Lucinda Williams' hourlong opening set, her emotional scars revealed themselves in everything from her heart-rending lyrics to her raspy, honey-tinged vocals—as if even her voice were beginning to show the wear and tear from years of regret, heartache and longing.

But Williams wasn't content to cry in her beer. Backed by an agile, four-piece band, she stomped, howled and made demands ("You took my joy/I want it back," she yelped on a raucous "Joy"). The supporting players matched her fire step for step, tearing into the muscular boogie of "Real Love" as if they were ducking bottles at a roadhouse. Elsewhere, Williams tackled lingering crushes ("Pineola"), struggled with self-doubt ("Little Rock Star") and exorcised the pains that come with growing distant from a onetime lover ("Out of Touch").

A trio of new songs seemed to suggest the weather is finally breaking, none more so than "Tears of Joy," a bluesy number that found Williams pledging her allegiance to an unnamed lover as she sang, "You took this girl and made her your queen."
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