Grand Rapids Press: "4 Out of 4 Stars" John Mellencamp Once Again Proves His Dynamic Stage Mettle In Grand Rapids

By John Sinkevics | The Grand Rapids Press
Photo Gallery By T.J. Hamilton

It's pretty clear from the documentary, “It's About You,” which screened at Grand Rapids' DeVos Performance Hall prior to John Mellencamp's concert on Tuesday night that the Indiana roots-rocker sees himself as a seminal, American songwriting icon.

The grainy Super 8 film that Kurt and Ian Markus shot during a 2009 tour shows Mellencamp bravely laying down songs in vintage, historic locales such as Memphis' Sun Studios where superstar Elvis Presley made his mark and a San Antonio hotel room where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson once recorded.

And while Mellencamp certainly did his utmost to prove his songwriting mettle for the near-sellout audience of 2,000-plus on Tuesday, he may actually have been more successful in solidifying his reputation as one of rock's most dynamic, charismatic stage performers.

Touring behind his critically praised 2010 album, “No Better Than This” – which oozes American roots influences – Mellencamp and his cracker-jack band uncorked a brilliantly paced live show, which in itself is something few artists ever master.

They did it by performing three distinct acts, starting with a homey, rockabilly-styled country-and-blues set launched by a rollicking rendition of “The Authority Song” complete with stand-up drum kit, stand-up bass and standout violinist Miriam Sturm.

It was such a tasty song roster – featuring “No One Cares About Me,” “Death Letter,” “Crumblin' Down,” “Check it Out” and more – that the bulk of the crowd never sat down, and believe me, that's a rarity for DeVos Performance Hall.

That segment -- with its understated lighting -- morphed into a highly pleasing acoustic set that had Mellencamp playing solo acoustic guitar with occasional backing from Sturm and accordionist Troye Kinnett, followed by a loud, bright, electric, rock 'n' roll bang courtesy of chart-topping songs “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Pink Houses,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and “Cherry Bomb.”
John Mellencamp

And for many Mellencamp devotees who've seen their hero before, the stage-savvy, 60-year-old veteran still managed to put a new sheen on the favorites “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Small Town” and “Jack and Diane,” much of which was performed in a cappella fashion with the audience enthusiastically singing every word.

“We certainly try to put a new spin on stuff like 'Jack and Diane' and 'The Authority Song,' reinventing them a little bit but still completely recognizable,” Mellencamp guitarist Andy York had told me in an earlier interview (that you can read in its entirety here). “Hopefully, people see it as a cool twist.”
York had also told me earlier that Mellencamp insisted on inserting a couple of different songs into the set for the fifth leg of the “No Better Than This Tour,” something I'm sure the singer-songwriter encouraged as a way of keeping the show fresh.

Mellencamp's songwriting may have shined brightest on a few poignant tunes near the end of that acoustic set, with "Jackie Brown," "Longest Days" and "Small Town" allowing fans to really zero in on captivating lines such as "life is short even in its longest days."

Granted, Mellencamp has grown ever raspier in his vocal delivery over the years, giving fans a sort of Tom Waits-meets-John Prine-meets-Steve Earle growl at times. It's something perhaps that's a product of cigarette smoking and age, or maybe, an intentional sort of tip-of-the-hat to those noted bluesmen and roots artists to which he pays tribute.

With the under-rated powerhouse York leading the way on guitar, Sturm, Kinnett and the rest of the band – Michael Wanchic (guitar), John Gunnell (electric and upright bass) and Dane Clark (drums) – really generated sparks in the show's final 40 minutes, giving “Rain on the Scarecrow” all the socio-political power it demands. They transformed “If I Die Sudden” into a suspenseful, blues-rocker with Mellencamp shedding his guitar to put all his energy into his passionate singing.

Sure, Mellencamp could have played a bit longer, considering his vast inventory of songs, but the man sure knows how to energize a crowd.

He's the kind of guy who turns audiences into believers every time they see him, inspired by a singer who might be calculated but is never slick, and whose bravado and swagger – and rootsy songwriting – serve him oh so well in the spotlight.

4 out of 4 stars
Highlight No. 1: The perfectly arranged “Death Letter” in the opening set had a dark, powerful blues vibe, enhanced by Andy York's guitar leads and Miriam Sturm's violin work.

Highlight No. 2: A dramatic, gorgeously melancholy finish to Mellencamp's acoustic set, with “Jackie Brown,” “Longest Days” and “Small Town” leading into the rock fervor of “Rain on the Scarecrow.”

Time on stage: 1 hour, 44 minutes