Like an ember in his soul, anger has always spurred John Mellencamp forward.
He acknowledged as much Saturday night, near the end of his tight two-hour set at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin Auditorium: “I must’ve been 25 when I wrote this song, and I still feel the same way now as I did then,” he shouted during an instrumental break in Authority Song.
The near-capacity crowd roared its approval — they were shouting back the lyrics with the gusto of a bloodthirsty mob — and in doing so, validated his decades of furious, Midwestern rock and roll.
That anger — over not getting the girl, not getting the job, not getting any younger — has taken different forms as the 63-year-old Mellencamp has aged, dropping the Cougar from his name and becoming enamored, as do many rockers of a certain vintage, with the blues and folk idioms they gleefully violate on the way up.
He found sensual fury in his cover of Robert Johnson’s Stones in My Passway.
He favored a baroque, almost Tom Waits-ian brand of disenchantment during The Full Catastrophe.
Even the raw-nerved opener, Lawless Times, from his most recent LP, Plain Spoken, was fueled by a frustrated resignation about life in the 21st century: “You’d better lock your door/Even when you’re at home.”
What is most fascinating about this gradual transition from angry young man to weary elder statesman is that it more or less happened in plain sight.
The hit singles petered out around the turn of the century, which allowed him to pour himself into other pursuits, such as painting, acting, political activism and writing.
In 2008, he hooked up with Fort Worth-bred producer T Bone Burnett, a union which spawned a trio of albums, including Spoken, rich with a bare-bones folk-rock sound. (The strains of Woody Guthrie could be heard over the PA before the lights went down Saturday.)
This reconnection with the raw material of his early years — the jangle of Jack & Diane or Paper in Fire is nothing if not proto-folk-rock — makes for a remarkably cohesive evening.
Backed by a dynamite six-piece band, with the grace notes of violin, accordion and harmonica slipped in between bass, guitar and drums, Mellencamp’s sandpaper snarl — one of rock’s most strangled and beloved voices — wrapped itself around, as he put it, “songs you know, songs you don’t know, songs you can sing along with.”
Those indelible songs, sparked to life by that undying anger, have built up a catalog that now compliments itself.
Midway through the show, Mellencamp spoke of his late grandmother’s wisdom before starting Longest Days, a melancholy tune ( “So you pretend not to notice/That everything has changed/Way that you look and the friends you once had/So you keep on acting the same”) he deftly followed with Jack & Diane ( “Oh yeah/Life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone”).
There it was, in the space of just two songs: The pique Mellencamp once externalized so forcefully has become a pitched, internal struggle.
Watching an artist work through it in real time was something to see, baby.