This wasn’t your father’s John Mellencamp.
Not Tuesday night at the Weidner Center, where the rock legend with the heartland-inspired arena anthems and once-prominent Johnny Cougar roots gave way to a more reflective, stripped-down songwriter in his prime.
“Jack and Diane’’ were reintroduced from whence they had come, as a true little ditty played solo and acoustic. “Rain on the Scarecrow’’ rolled in with pared-down vocals under the formidable brewing storm cloud of his six-piece band. It was the gospel according to John in “Walk Tall,’’ his sage advice buoyed by vibrant violin and keys.
“Seventeen has turned 35, I’m surprised that we’re still livin’,’’ he sang in “Cherry Bomb’’ to close two hours of musical storytelling. Now 35 has turned to 60 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and his own mortality seems to be more forefront in his mind than ever.
“This gettin’ old is not for sissies,’’ he says as the start of “It’s About You,’’ the hour-long documentary about the making of his current “No Better Than This’’ album that was screened prior to the concert. It’s a sentiment he revisited repeatedly throughout the 23-song set, and in true Mellencamp fashion, he let it be known he isn’t going down that road without a fight.
To that end, he opened with “Authority Song,’’ which, like so many of his hits, has aged to perfection. His hair shorter and spikier, but the swagger and stubbornness still unflinching – even in a three-piece suit. There was a renewed sense of vigor about him all evening – a man seemingly both conflicted and at peace with where his life has taken him, but with the urgency that there’s still so much more to say.
“Life is short even in its longest days,’’ he sang, advice he told the crowd he got from his 100-year-old grandmother.
While the faithful in a mostly middle-aged audience got their mini arena moments, particularly during a home stretch that went full throttle on “What If I Came Knocking,’’ “Pink Houses’’ and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,’’ it was the darker material off Mellencamp’s latest two records – a pair of throwback projects produced by T Bone Burnett – that really resonated.
After turning in a bluesy “John Cockers,’’ in which he laments how he “ain’t
got no friends,’’ and the rockabilly groove of “No One Cares About Me,’’
Mellencamp dismissed his band mid-show for a solo set that found the songwriter
often singing from the shadows and his lyrics squarely in the spotlight. They
couldn’t have shone more beautifully than in “Save Some Time to Dream,’’ a kind
of Words to Live By Courtesy of John Mellencamp, delivered with a gravely voice
reminiscent of John Prine.
Save some time for sorrow/Cause it’s surely gonna come your way/And prepare yourself for failure/It’ll give you strength some day.
It managed to hush the crowd – no easy feat in times of deteriorating concert manners. (And leave it to Mellencamp – the same hardheaded artist who didn’t bow to the formality of doing an encore -- to give ushers specific orders to deliver stern warnings to anyone so much as seen with a lighted cell phone during the show.)
“Jackie Brown’’ was draped in the sad violin of Miriam Sturm -- a lovely presence who drifted on and off the stage throughout the night. As did the rest of his fantastic band, showing up in full and in ensembles with banjo, mandolin, accordion and stand-up drums to reflect the decidedly more country feel of his recent work.
“My time has come and gone, it’s as simple that,’’ he sang in “A Ride Back Home.’’ It was perhaps the only untruth of the night from an artist who has endured for three decades by crafting honest songs without apology.