Lehigh Valley Music Blog: Mellencamp At Reading's Sovereign Center: Can't Get No Better Than This

By John J. Moser -  Mcall.com Lehigh Valley Music

Mellencamp concert 2When John Mellencamp started his current No Better Than This tour early this year, it was an exercise in defiance in the face of growing older.

As with his stellar two most recent albums, 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” and 2010’s “No Better Than This,” the show was an acknowledgment of the restrictions and regrets of age, but also a statement Mellencamp was going to take it on his way.

Seven months later, that tour, which stopped Friday at a full Sovereign Performing Arts Center in Reading, has morphed into a full-blown celebration – of perhaps not conquering the aging process, but certainly battling hard against it.

John Mellencamp in file photo

In a 22-song, hour-and-55-minute show, Mellencamp, who just turned 60, certainly acknowledged the time that has passed in his life, but swathed it in a swagger that said he wasn’t about to let it slow him down.

His hair cut spiky and the gray that showed in a February stop in Philadelphia gone, Mellencamp seemed similarly rejuvenated. A third of his set came from those two most recent albums, but he seemed to invest even more into his earlier hits, malleating their meanings for his new life position.

The opening “Authority Song,” for example, both literally and figuratively served notice. Its lyrics explicitly warned Mellencamp does things his way, and its rollicking rockabilly, with a ‘60s guitar sound and kicking-good standup kit drums, warned the same. It also showed how tight the band was – stopping dead on a beat, then restarting.

The irony was that Mellancamp’s voice took on the grizzled growl of a latter-day Dylan. That was especially true on the new songs “No One Cares About Me” (when he sang “My wife, she took off to Memphis,” it was hard not to think of his recent divorce from Gilbertsville native Elaine Erwin) and a ballsy, bluesy “John Cockers.” On Son House’s “Death Letter,” he literally spat out the words – expectorating on stage.

He ended the first part of his set with a joyous, goose bump-inducing “Check It Out.” As the drums, accordion and violin built, the whole crowd – most also of advancing age and already wholly invested -- clapped along. They even cheered when Mellencamp, dressed in an open-collar, three-piece black suit, removed his jacket – as it if was some symbol.

The show’s middle section had Mellencamp alone with acoustic guitar for a great “Save Some Time To Dream” (the crowd, which obviously connected with the song’s lyrics, whooped along), and perhaps the show’s highlight with a raucous “Jack and Diane,” which he started a cappella, then kicked in with his guitar after the crowd sang the while first chorus.

As overwhelming the response was to that song, the crowd as just as silent for the following “A Ride Back Home.” Mellencamp sang in a wonderfully expressive voice, and the lyrics hinted at the underlying fear that perhaps motivated such a devastating performance: “My time’s come and gone,” he sang, “It’s as simple as that.”

After being joined again by banjo, mandolin and violin for the delightful macho bluster of an emphatic “Easter Eve” (he so controlled the band that with the wave of his hand mid-song, they lowered their volume), he again was alone for a startlingly serious “Longest Days” and, alone in a blue spotlight, a stark “Small Town.” He again made a reference to Irwin, changing the words to say “Married a couple of girls, brought them to this small town … my guess is, it’s me.”

The full band returned for a full-bore, blasting “Blood on the Scarecrow,” and from there Mellencamp rocked to the finish with a string of hits. “Paper In Fire” was ominous, with the band lined up at the front of the stage to play. “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” was infused with a riff from The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”

And “If I Die Sudden” was straight-forward rock, its lyrics laying out the night’s premise: “I’m not afraid of dying/This life’s been good to me.”

He closed with five-minute versions of three of his biggest hits.

“Pink Houses” sent a rush through the crowd, and he was so intent that he came to the edge of the stage and pointed as he sang. “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” had not only the people on the floor dancing wildly, but even the people in the balcony waving their arms and rocking.

And, finally, “Cherry Bomb,” with its nostalgic line “We were young, and we were improving.”

But on this night, there was no evidence that Mellencamp isn’t still improving. Throughout the show, he danced – not as if he had something to prove, but simply because he wanted to, and could.

And that attitude infused the crowd, who, during “Jack and Diane,” danced and sang “Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone.”

At least for a night, the thrill was still there.

Jason Moser contributed to this review