Columbus Dispatch: John Mellencamp Latest Musical Journey A Look Inside The Soul

By  Curtis Schieber For The Columbus Dispatch

“Life is short even in its longest days,” John Mellencamp sang last night, midway through a two-hour set in the Palace Theatre. It was advice, he said, offered by his 100-year-old grandmother.

Mellencamp has learned plenty on his own during his 40 years making music, from being molded early on into teen idol Johnny Cougar to breaking into the top of pop music on his own; from finding his everyman voice and fighting for the American farmer to the burnished blues and country of his recent albums.

His odyssey has not only fueled the evolution of his music but peppered his songs with wry observations, folksy truths and a populist appeal that carries him still.

Last night, the newest incarnation proved not only honest but often musically stunning. The singer drew from two recent albums produced by Americana music go-to guy T-Bone Burnett and a roughened bark that recalled John Prine and Bob Dylan.

In fact, all but the biggest pop hits sounded marvelously aged. At its most extreme, during Death Letter, his growl infused dread and suggested Howlin’ Wolf. The song benefited from the blues and rockabilly grooves laid down by his terrific band but worked largely because the singer sounded like he lives inside the song.

Mellencamp’s new sound not only mirrors his own wizened observations but the challenge posed by his grandma.

Enormous success seasoned by a vigilant conscience and uncommon empathy has led the songwriter to new songs such as A Ride Back Homeand Save Some Time To Dream, both highlights last night. The first finds its subject looking for safe harbor; the second telescopes from the individual to the community with the punch line, “’cause your dream might save us all.”

In one more illustration of the singer’s progress, two of his biggest hits,Jack And Diane and Small Town were delivered with just acoustic guitar and a renewed emphasis on their stories.