Cincinnati Enquirer: Mellencamp Deftly Mixes New With Old By Chris Varias

It was 25 years ago, at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill. I remember two things about the concert: The woman standing in front of me had long, straight hair that fell to the back of her knees, and John Cougar Mellencamp jumped off the drum riser, landed awkwardly and limped off the stage.

Perhaps John Mellencamp also remembers that second part.

“I’d look awful silly up here jumping around like I was 20 years old,” Mellencamp said Monday night. Instead, he told the crowd that he would be “doing it with a little dignity.”

Mellencamp’s performance at Music Hall was restrained from a rock ‘n’ roll acrobatic standpoint, but the effort was there in other ways. He and his six-piece band delivered 26 songs in a row – no encore, just a brief accordion-violin interlude that lasted about as long as it takes to sneak a backstage cigarette.

Many of the songs in the set came from his new CD, “No Better Than This,” which was released in August. Mellencamp told the crowd that he doesn’t suffer from nostalgia, and as the first half of the show concentrated on new, relatively softer material it felt like it might stay that way.

But he finished the show with a string of louder, rocking hits to the delight of his nostalgia-prone audience at Music Hall (a venue he said that he only performed at one time before – opening a Kinks show in 1978).

It’s hard for Mellencamp’s new work to compete against the mass appeal of a classic tunes from his catalog such as “Jack and Diane” or “Cherry Bomb,” but one or two of the songs were up to the task. The best was “Save Some Time to Dream,” a song he performed solo with an acoustic guitar. “Save some time to dream, ’cause your dream might save us all,” he sang.

“That’s true, you know,” he told the crowd. “I’ve had a lot of dumb ideas that worked out well.”

The old tunes he performed early in the show were made to sound like the folky newer material. Mellencamp opened the show with a great reworking of his 1983 hit “Authority Song,” which paid tribute to its spiritual predecessor, Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” by giving it a stripped-down arrangement and copying Fuller’s famous guitar riff in the chorus. He gave the crowd a shortened a cappella version of “Cherry Bomb,” and the crowd did most of the singing.

The hits, performed mostly as they are remembered, came in a string at the end: “Jack and Diane,” “Small Town,” “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire,” “Human Wheel,” “The Real Life,” “Pink Houses” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”

There was no opening act. Instead, there was a screening of “It’s About You,” a new documentary film that follows Mellencamp’s 2009 concert tour and the making of “No Better Than This,” which took place in various sessions at Sun Studio, the historic First American Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., and the hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded “Sweet Home Chicago.”