Cleveland Plain Dealer: Little Ditty 'Bout John Mellencamp: He Just Keeps Getting Better And Better

By Chuck Yarborough, The Plain Dealer

John Mellencamp is proving to be the exception to the rule that rock 'n' roll usually is kind of the reverse of real life.

In real life, a man or woman gets a grounding in his or her trade, then hones those skills over the next decades, until the deftness and experience to do the job well are at their peak just as his own clock is winding down.

In rock, if a singer-songwriter in his or 20s writes a hit song, one where the words and melody fit like Tab A and Slot B in some musical IKEA product, the following decades often are spent trying to recapture that glory.

And here is where Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mellencamp, who wowed a sold-out Connor Theatre in Playhouse Square for more than 90 minute Saturday night, is different.

Yeah, he had the hits early on in his career - and they went over like the proverbial gangbusters Saturday night. "Jack and Diane,'' "Authority Song,'' "Small Town,'' "Pink Houses,'' "Crumblin' Down'' - the words are tattooed onto our collective DNA, so that even the most casual Mellencamp fan could join in the sing-alongs they became.

Then there are the songs that didn't get the radio play - "Human Wheels,'' "Rain on the Scarecrow,'' "Paper in Fire'' and yes, even "Cherry Bomb,'' that showed the man's gift not just with a melody, but with lyrics that don't just tell a story; they capture a feeling.

But THIS is where Mellencamp is different than the typical rocker who spent 40 years desperately trying not to be a one-hit wonder: The songs off his 2014 album "Plain Spoken'' - his 22nd studio offering, by the way - are even more impressive, lyrically, sonically and emotionally.

The show-opening "Lawless Times,'' "Troubled Man'' and especially "The Isolation of Mister'' spotlight a poet who wisely used the years between youth and middle his 60s - Mellencamp is now 63 - to become the absolute master of songwriting.

If that were all it is, it would be wonderful. But it's not. Not by far. Let's start with the band -- Andy York on lead guitar and vocals; 45-year bandmate Mike Wanchic on rhythm guitar and vocals; Troye Kinnett on keys, accordion and harp; Miriam Sturm on violin/fiddle (same instrument, but the song makes the choice), John Gunnell on bass; and especially Dane Clark on drums. They help turn great Mellencamp songs into three-dimensional beings, and he's the one who chose them.

Then there's that voice, able to emote and evoke with equal skill. It's like the rasp of Tom Waits, but with the power of Placido Domingo. That combination turns songs like "If I Die Sudden'' and "Minutes to Memories'' into Heartland arias.

Truth be told, I half expected him to be this good. But the song that impressed me most was his cover of "Stones in My Passway.'' Yes, it was on his 2003 album "Trouble No More,'' but I just wasn't sure he could pull it off live. Somewhere in blues heaven, Robert Johnson and Robert Lockwood Jr. are nodding appreciatively.

And he was magnificent with Carlene Carter, who returned after a stellar nine-song opening set to sing "Away From the World,'' from "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,'' the musical Mellencamp wrote with T. Bone Burnett and horror writer Stephen King.

Carter's 40 minutes onstage to begin the night were a combination of great songs - she learned the songwriting craft from mama June, and many of the tunes were from her new album, "Carter Girl'' - and family stories, like Kris Kristofferson (in leather pants) landing his helicopter on the front lawn as then 12-year-old Carlene was getting ready to mow.

Her song "Lonesome Valley,'' which deals with the deaths of her mother and stepfather, Johnny Cash, may be one of the wrenching ever written, and even more so because even though her parents were famous, each of us can relate to the pain.

And that part of real life, sadly, can't be reversed. Not even by John Mellencamp.