Notre Dame's Observer: Mellencamp Rocks The Morris In South Bend

The Observer By Ross Finney

In more than 30 years in the music business, John Mellencamp has learned how to work a crowd. With plenty of charm, and more than a couple good jokes, the native Hoosier had the packed audience in the palm of his hand Saturday at his excellent performance at the Morris Performing Arts Center.

There was plenty of love for Indiana's biggest rock ‘n' roll star, and the Morris, which can seem a little stuffy, didn't stifle the enthusiasm or the fun. More than a few moms rocked out, many right in front the stage, dancing and having a fantastic time. The booze was flowing, everyone clapped and sang along when they could, and one man even ran through the aisles with a John Mellencamp flag.

The show began with his band playing mostly acoustic instruments, and Mellencamp did a run-through of songs largely culled from his most recent albums "No Better than This" and 2008's "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."

He started out with his classic, "The Authority Song," which he gave a bit of a rockabilly flavor that suited the song very well and really primed the audience. After that he broke into the new song, "Nobody Cares About Me," which was upbeat and amusing.

Later in the set, he covered Son House's blues song "Death Letter" to which Mellencamp's voice was surprisingly suited. Guitarist Andy York provided slide guitar, which was amazingly dark and moody. The song highlighted Mellencamp's great talent for channeling the more traditional styles of music that have so heavily influenced his last two albums.

Mellencamp told the audience about his interaction with a fan right before the show, when the fan asked him if he was playing the old favorites. To that Mellencamp jokingly said he tried to look ahead most of the time, but he just might make a promise to play one or two songs. He then went into an a cappella solo version of the favorite "Cherry Bomb," to which the audience knew every word.

The mostly solo acoustic set followed, the highlight of which may have been his great song "Jackie Brown." He was joined by violinist Miriam Strum, whose playing added a new depth and strikingly sad quality to what is already a rather bleak song, and it was spectacular. Throughout the night, Strum's violin added rich texture to the arrangements, and gave the whole performance a very likable rootsy feel.

"Jack and Diane" may have been the most controversial of the songs to which he gave new arrangement. Giving it a laid back country two-step, Mellencamp changed the tune from an Americana anthem to more thoughtful folksy reminiscence on life. Audience reception was lukewarm, though many still sang along as though the tune were its rocking former self.

Immediately following "Jack and Diane" was a solo acoustic version of the classic "Small Town," which was fantastic. Not significantly different in arrangement, but just stripped down, the song got at right to the core of South Bend's appreciation for Mellencamp. It was simple, bold and passionately sung, both by Mellencamp and the audience.

His full rock band closed out the night, performing many of the old favorites. He managed to slip in a couple new tracks, but the audience was really there to hear the songs they've loved for years. "Pink Houses" was as rocking as ever and its lyrics about the failure of the American Dream are as pertinent as ever.

The last song of the night was "R.O.C.K. in the USA" which was a great closer. A cheerful ending note, the song sounded fresh, and Mellencamp even pulled a woman from the audience to dance with him, which was as hilarious as it was simply awesome on his part.

Among his many asides, he gave some advice to the younger folks out there, saying that when he was young he thought he knew a lot. But, he's also lived a great a deal since then, and that he might have picked up some knowledge along the way, and that made him dangerous. He humorously warned that there's "nothing worse than a dangerous old man." If a dangerous old man can continue to put on shows like his, there might be nothing better.