At the conclusion of his set Tuesday night at DeVos Performance Hall, John Mellencamp waxed amusingly and philosophically about nostalgia. He went on about how older folk – a camp he admits he pitches his tent in now – tend to go on and on about "old times," then followed it with a nostalgia number about nostalgia, "Cherry Bomb," a bit of delicious Midwestern corn that created many memories for people who blared their car radios in the 1980s.
I'm sure it's still creating good memories, considering how strong Mellencamp's performance was. He spent the entirety of the 115-minute concert by turns warmly embracing and stubbornly fighting nostalgia. An insistence upon the viability of new material came early, via "Lawless Times" and "Troubled Man," from 2014 record "Plain Spoken," the evening's first two numbers. The former features a lyric that stabs out of the arrangement like a sword: "I don't trust myself, I don't trust you." During the latter, he bandied about words such as "anxiety," "self-destruction" and "failure," punctuating with "I laughed out loud once/Won't do that again...I'm a troubled man."
So this clearly isn't the same Mellencamp in tone – he paints with the cynicism and sarcasm we don't sense in the massive anthems of his past. Yet "Lawless Times" looks outward, and "Troubled Man" looks inward, something he so effortlessly did in a single breath on many of those hits, in which he spun personal observations and experiences into simple profundities, tightly braiding them with irrepressible hooks. Those songs would come, unavoidably, the first crowd-pleaser being "Small Town," although it's hard to say the performance was better than his gritty cover of Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway," which pared his six-piece backing band down to a punchy power trio.
During the opening chords of "Small Town," Mellencamp stood back, blending with the band, as if acknowledging that some songs are bigger than him. Later, he would introduce a solo, acoustic version of "Jack and Diane" with tongue slightly in cheek: "I can't even figure out why I play it anymore," he said. "But y'all want to hear it." Performing it unplugged was an act of giving the song to the audience, letting them sing along without a band drowning them out.
Of course, the crowd, eager to get to the chorus, and perhaps a few beverages into the evening, stepped on the second verse, prompting Mellencamp to playfully chide them. The number served as a reminder that 2,000-plus people, even if they're a little drunk and off-key, being accountants and clerks and so forth, and generally not professional singers, can unify their voices into something elevating. It felt like affirmation of the power of strong, enduring songs, how good ones can transcend its time and just be about whatever moment it's in right now.
His band was consistently stellar, anchored by longtime guitarist Mike Wanchic, drummer Dane Clark and bassist John Gunnell, with lead guitarist Andy York, violinist Miriam Sturm and keyboardist/accordionist Troye Kinnett providing pointed accoutrement. Mellencamp's stage presence has gotten more eccentric – just this side of Tom Waits' weirdness, and thankfully not even close to Bob Dylan's impenetrability. Although he seemed a bit stiff physically, he postured like a rock star with the utmost confidence in his band and songs, vigorously chewing gum and putting fists in the air when not playing his telecaster.
Mellencamp's between-song raps rambled amusingly, ranging from endearingly crusty to the earnestness that characterized his early career and John Cougar persona. His voice, a product of uncountable cigarettes – maybe that's nicotine gum he chonks – veered from his signature rasp to a cantankerous growl, most prevalent on "The Full Catastrophe," a Waitsian number if there ever was one, performed under somber blue lights and loaded with bleak, comic hyperbole: "Man, I was tattooed when it first came out," he grumbled cheekily, the chorus refrain referencing "the full catastrophe of life."
Pairing nicely with the rigorous musicianship was an impeccable pacing, exemplified by a sequence featuring dark rockers "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Paper in Fire," along with blues-rooted "If I Die Sudden," leading lithely to an awesome and beefy run through "Crumblin' Down" and a spirited "Authority Song." Only a pair of songs from Mellencamp's stage-musical collaboration with Stephen King, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," felt like padding even with their duets with opening act Carlene Carter, a forced attempt at presenting unfamiliar material.
"Check it Out" and "Pink Houses" still wear their weighty Americana melancholy well, even with additional live instrumentation; any slight tweak in tone would derail their poignant slice-of-life sincerity. It's worth mentioning the evening's most notable exclusion," "ROCK in the USA," which the crowd most likely would have enjoyed, but it just doesn't seem functional in a modern Mellencamp set. Some things change, some stay the same – Mellencamp is as compelling a performer as ever.
Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and former 1990s commercial-country hopeful, opened the show with a terrific 45-minute set culled from her solo work and ageless Carter Family cuts. She shared amusing anecdotes between strong solo performances of "Black Jack David," "The Storms Are on the Ocean" and a heartbreaking lament about the death of her mother, stepfather Johnny Cash and sister Rosey Nix Adams, "Lonesome Valley."