John Mellencamp And His Band Plugged In At The New Orleans Jazz Fest By Keith Spera

On recent albums, John Mellencamp has dialed back on the amplified guitars in favor of a more acoustic, back-to-basics approach. Not so Sunday evening on the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Except for occasional unplugged detours, Mellencamp fronted a fully amped ensemble anchored by two snarling electric guitars, driving drums and a generous sampling of his sizeable hit parade.

John Mellencamp on First Sunday Jazz Fest 2011Matthew Hinton / The Times-PicayuneJohn Mellencamp performs on the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest on Sunday, May 1, 2011.

For whatever reason, Mellencamp has not performed publicly in New Orleans in at least 15 years, and has never appeared at Jazz Fest. Accurate or not, he has a reputation as something of a curmudgeon; taking himself too seriously, it seems, is not a problem for him. But across the final hour of his Acura Stage set, he visibly loosened up, and let himself have some fun.

Most obvious example? The nostalgic "Cherry Bomb." He knocked off a verse and chorus alone and a cappella. With just his voice, he found a swinging rhythm, tapping into the spirit of this celebration of a wayward youth spent in part at a club called the Cherry Bomb.

He quickly reverted to serious mode. The government, he stated, is obligated to provide for the defense and well-being of the people. "Why do they always seem to have enough money for defense," he said, "but not for well-being?"

Alone with his acoustic, he launched "Jackie Brown," then stopped - he'd positioned his capo on the incorrect fret on his guitar's neck. "E-flat," he said, grinning at someone in the audience who apparently pointed out his mistake. "You're right."

If not the firebrand of yesteryear, he's still a game performer, alternately electric and acoustic guitars and leading clap-alongs. He dispensed with "Jack and Diane" early on, in acoustic form. He and his shape-shifting six-piece band consistently tinkered with familiar arrangements. His loud songs they rendered more subdued; his subdued songs, such as "Pink Houses," they amped up, courtesy of guitarists Michael Wanchic - a decades-long member of the Mellencamp band - and Andrew York. Some reworkings worked better than others.

A mostly acoustic "Small Town" was graced by Troye Kinnett's accordion and Miriam Sturm's fiddle, as was a modest "Check It Out." A driving "Rain on the Scarecrow" was fully amped, as was "Paper In Fire." Even "Pink Houses" was revved up with bonus fiddle and electric guitar.

"R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." was more or less faithful to the original, even as Mellencamp mostly let the audience sing the chorus. A final "Crumblin' Down" empowered the band to kick out the jams one last time. Mellencamp seemed happy to let them.