Mellencamp: A ‘plain-spoken’ poet facing down life’s longest days
At age 63, the Indiana rocker is looking back on his Hall of Fame career with some sentimentality, but he is also living fully in the present and ready for what lies ahead.
You could see this in the songs he selected for the spirited 90-minute set he performed before a near capacity crowd at Hamilton Place Wednesday night.
Interspersed with the crowd-pleasing hits, ran lesser known songs bound by the common theme of the aging minstrel facing down his final chapters of life. I'm ready for you, come and get me, just try.
Backed by a polished six-piece band featuring the magnificent violin of Miriam Sturm, Mellencamp opened the concert in the present, introducing the crowd to two songs from his superb new album "Plain Spoken."
The first was the gritty downbeat rocker "Lawless Times," a song laced with the day-to-day paranoia of urban living. The second was the more introspective "Troubled Man," a folkie ballad looking back on a life not always well lived.
Both showed that Mellencamp hasn't lost any of his songwriting powers. If anything they've grown with maturity. He remains the "plain spoken" poet of the hinterland, his lyrics never requiring interpretation.
It didn't take long for Mellencamp to enter more familiar territory, bringing the crowd to its feet with the 1985 hit "Small Town," before doing a soft-shoe shuffle and launching into a howling cover of Robert Johnson's blues classic "Stones in my Passway." Here he proved that his tobacco and whisky stained voice can still hit the big notes.
At the start of a brief acoustic set, he told the crowd about some advice his mother gave him before she died at the age of 100: "You're going to find out real soon that life is short even in its longest days." It was a fitting intro to "Longest Days," a bleak track from his underappreciated 2008 album "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."
Still in acoustic mode, came the biggest crowd favourite of all, "Jack and Diane." It's a song that has become such a singalong favourite, that Mellencamp no longer even tries to sing the chorus. Still, he had to stop and correct the audience after it broke it one verse too early.
"No, no," he said with arms outstretched. "That's the chorus. Generally a song has a first verse, a second verse, and THEN the chorus. Let's try that again."
Then Mellencamp shifted backed into that introspective melancholy mood again with a Tom Waits style of delivery for an a cappella rendering of "Full Catastrophe of Life."
He continued in that sombre mood with "If I Die Sudden," before finishing off with a finale of some more old favourites: "Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song," "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bomb." The audience, of course, loved it.
Although many of his fans still long for the young rocker they grew up with in the 80s, Mellencamp has, in recent years, morphed into a roots/Americana icon, closer in kinship to Steve Earle than John Cougar.
As if to prove it, he brought out opening act Carlene Carter — a full-fledged member of the founding family of country music — to help out with a couple of songs he has written for a Stephen King theatrical production called "Ghost Brothers of Darkland." One was pure country, the other gospel-tinged.