New York Times: NYC Housing Works Show Review - Mellencamp Channels Defiance and Dreams

Michael Nagle for The New York Times
John Mellencamp at the “Live From Home” concert.

Published: January 28, 2008

Everyone could hear him when John Mellencamp leaned away from the microphone and declaimed a verse of “Minutes to Memories” virtually unamplified on Friday night. That doesn’t happen when he plays his usual theaters and arenas, but on this night he was leading his band at the Housing Works Used Book Cafe, which holds fewer than 200 people. It was the fifth anniversary concert for “Live From Home,” a series of benefits for the nonprofit AIDS service organization Housing Works that has steadily booked first-rate songwriters to play for audiences much smaller than their usual crowds.

Mr. Mellencamp was hardly out of place as a do-gooder. He made his name as a Midwestern bad-boy rocker, but since the 1980s he has been singing about the crushed dreams and shrinking expectations of someone who wonders what happened to the small-town America where he grew up. On Friday he followed his proud 1985 hit “Small Town” — now played alone on acoustic guitar — with last year’s “Ghost Towns Along the Highway,” about disappearing farm communities, and the 1985 “Rain on the Scarecrow,” about foreclosed farms.

Mr. Mellencamp’s music still has the three-chord twang and gritty vocals he learned from the Rolling Stones, country and Motown. But he has traded a young man’s bravado for grown-up disenchantment, wary determination and minor keys. His most recent songs, including some from his next album, mix his old stubbornness with a middle-aged sense of limitations and endings. He announced repeatedly that he was 56.

“You wouldn’t know it by lookin’ at me now,” he sang in “A Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus),” “But I once showed some promise once upon a time/But it’s gone now and it ain’t comin’ back.” Another new song, “If I Die Sudden,” harked back to John Lee Hooker’s boogies and wondered about sin and redemption. Mr. Mellencamp also sang “Jena,” about a town in Louisiana where black students were initially charged with attempted murder in an assault on a white classmate after white high school students hung nooses in a tree on the school grounds. Its chorus went, “Jena, take your nooses down.”

He was high-minded in recent songs like “Our Country,” a folk-rock anthem envisioning unity. But he hasn’t forgotten his insolent guitar riffs or the defiant streak he now channels into populist convictions. He dedicated the opening lines of a fierce “Crumblin’ Down” — “Some people ain’t no damn good/You can’t trust ’em” — to the Bush administration. And he followed up with “Authority Song,” from 1983, about challenging authority, win or lose.

“No matter how juvenile in its presentation it may be, a lot of people liked this song,” he said, adding, “I still feel the same way at 56 I felt at 23 when I wrote this song.” Then the drums and electric guitar kicked in, and Mr. Mellencamp was grappling again.
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