What a way to end a tour.
Indiana son John Mellencamp closed his year-long jaunt for last year’s release No Better Than This on a high note Saturday at Clowes Hall.
Mellencamp, unfair or not, has gotten a reputation for being somewhat of a crank, especially in his later years. He’s been vocal about reaching a point in his career when he wants to do things his way, not pander to the most populist attitudes. This tour has proven you can satisfy your creative urges and still keep your audience won over.
Saturday’s two-hour show was split into three sets. The first had a stripped-down rockabilly feel with mortality hymns like “No One Cares About Me” and “Death Letter,” along with reworked renditions of classics including “Walk Tall” and “Check it Out.”
The middle portion of the concert mainly featured a solo Mellencamp. Despite its austerity, it offered some of the most poignant moments of the evening. Mellencamp only really bantered once during the performance, to talk about the inspiration behind “Longest Days,” the opening track on 2008’s Life Death Love and Freedom. His grandmother lived to be over 100. Her spirituality was often at loggerheads with her grandson’s rebellious attitude. During one of many visits, she said something to Mellencamp that’s always stuck with him: “Life is short, even on its longest days.”
It’s reflections like that which remind casual listeners of the potency of Mellencamp’s earliest hits. Hearing a theater full of middle-agers sing in unison, “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone,” should give anyone pause. Indeed, an a cappella version of “Jack and Diane” proved a mesmerizing redux of an overused radio standard.
Despite the gloom that pervades Mellencamp’s recent work, he showed he’s still got his humor by reworking the lyrics to “Small Town” following his recent divorce: “Married a couple gals and brought them to this small town/Now I don’t know if it’s this small town or me/I think it’s probably me.”
Even in the rocking final portion, gems like “Paper in Fire” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” were revamped to showcase their Americana roots without losing any edge. A crack band that included a fiddle player and accordionist deserved considerable credit for giving these standards new life.
At 60, Mellencamp is one of those rare types who seems comfortable in his own skin. Recognizing the futility of chasing popular relevance, he’s doing things on his terms. Those of us who still care should be thankful for that.
What a way to end a tour.