Indianapolis Star/MetroMix: John Mellencamp at Clowes Hall

Indianapolis Star/MetroMix By David Lindquist - Photo Gallery By Sam Richie

Nostalgia is a tricky prism on the new John Mellencamp tour. "I'm not a very nostalgic person," the Hoosier rock star insisted as he introduced "Cherry Bomb" Monday night at Clowes Hall. The song, of course, is all about yesterdays -- sung, perhaps, by a 59-year-old grasping to keep his '80s glory days suspended in amber? Not this time around.

Mellencamp delivered "Cherry Bomb" a cappella, unlike any way it's been heard on previous tours. So, without misreading the presence of vintage instruments, old-timey arrangements and visuals such as a "Hud" movie poster tucked at the edge of the stage backdrop, the "No Better Than This" tour stacks up to be the most forward-thinking road show in Mellencamp's Hall of Fame career.
Nostalgia would be rolling out the hits, just as you remember from radio, at Market Square Arena. And beyond being impossible in a building that no longer exists, that concept is preposterous in Mellencamp's current mindset. He's finally liberated himself from a classic-rock albatross to drink deeply from American roots music.

This performance approach could have been adopted in 2003, when Mellencamp released an album of blues covers titled "Trouble No More." Monday's rendition of Son House's "Death Letter" certainly worked as bone-chilling evidence of the Seymour native being at the height of his powers. Amid Mike Wanchic on earthy mandolin, Dane Clark on mournful percussion and Andy York on taunting slide guitar, Mellencamp stood with hands raised in a voodoo pose -- telling his newly deceased lover he'll see her on Judgment Day.

Thanks to 2008 album "Life, Death, Love and Freedom" and this year's "No Better Than This," Mellencamp now has a stash of his own lowdown tales. Society's shared blues were heard on "West End," and Mellencamp goes down alone on a blistering "If I Die Sudden."

He proved to be a vocal chameleon across the three-act program (loosely rockabilly followed by folk and capped by rock). "Jackie Brown" received a smooth and melodic treatment, while the show-opening "Authority Song" was craggy and coarse.

The backing players sailed smoothly throughout, willing to crack open Mellencamp's catalog and vigorously reinvent. When Mellencamp refers to Wanchic, Clark, York, violin player Miriam Sturm, bass player Jon Gunnell and keyboard player Troye Kinnett as "the best band in America," it's no empty boast.

Still, an inverse equation seems to apply to the musicians and their audience. Onstage, "Check It Out" is the broccoli and "Death Letter" is the dessert. In the balcony seats, there may be a different perception of what's nutritional and what's sweet. Yet, overall, the capacity crowd of 2,200 at Clowes deserves high marks for its patient and open-minded response to the show. Hopefully, a similar mood will prevail Thursday at cavernous Hinkle Fieldhouse.