NY Times: John Mellencamp, Still Defiant, at the Apollo Theater

By Nate Chinen - NY Times

John Mellencamp opened a can of worms at the top of his show at the Apollo Theater on Thursday night. Leading his six-piece backing band through a roadhouse shuffle called “Lawless Times,” he rattled off a partial list of modern ills: police brutality, banking malfeasance, government corruption, online music piracy. (Some of these worse than others.)

The song’s point is the erosion of trust in American institutions and civil society, but Mr. Mellencamp seemed breezy as he belted the lyrics, grinning through his resignation. And he offered some practical advice, sounding like a wary, streetwise descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Learn the rules hard and fast/Take care of yourself.”

Mr. Mellencamp was setting the stage with some new material — “Lawless Times” is the final track on “Plain Spoken” (Republic), released last fall — but that particular credo could almost have come from any point in his career. The songs in the show, old as well as new, often shared a theme of unbowed resilience in the face of inexorable forces, especially the march of time. “Human wheels spin round and round,” Mr. Mellencamp sang in “Human Wheels,” one of his older ones, “While the clock keeps the pace.”

In several songs, Mr. Mellencamp dispensed hard-won advice. Credit Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times
At 63, Mr. Mellencamp sings in a gusty, craggy rasp, doing his part to embody the voice of conscience and experience. And “Plain Spoken” is his latest in a series of lean, rootsy albums made with the producer T Bone Burnett, its title an insistent reassurance.

But while the album has a few blunt broadsides, like “Freedom of Speech,” they were left out here in favor of more nuanced character portraits like “The Isolation of Mister,” a bitter confessional, and “Troubled Man,” whose accordion-and-fiddle orchestration and shantylike stomp evoked the footprint of Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band.

This was Mr. Mellencamp’s first appearance at the Apollo, besides a 2008 taping of “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ... ,” the Sundance Channel series. (It was one of his four shows in Manhattan this week, including two nights at Carnegie Hall.) He made no special allowances for the occasion, simply putting well-placed faith in the strength of his band, with Mike Wanchic and Andy York on guitars, Miriam Sturm on violin, Troye Kinnett on piano and accordion, John Gunnell on bass and Dane Clark on drums.

The rugged flexibility of the band was a core asset in the show, making some of the old hits — like “Paper in Fire” and “Pink Houses” — feel hard-nosed and purposeful.

Elsewhere Mr. Mellencamp changed the script, giving his biggest hit, “Jack & Diane,” a campfire arrangement complete with singalong. (He stopped and restarted the song, with a friendly admonishment, when the audience jumped the gun on the chorus.) He also reframed “The Full Catastrophe” as a piano ballad, expressing a little too much fondness for the gravelly flair of Tom Waits.

“Away From This World,” from “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” (Hear Music/Concord), his musical-theater gambit with the writer Stephen King, was a wistful ballad with a winningly smoky guest vocal by Carlene Carter. And “Authority Song” accommodated a detour into “Land of a Thousand Dances,” the Wilson Pickett hit, along with a spoken aside: “You know, I was about 25 years old when I wrote this song. And I still feel the same way as I did then.”

Most of Mr. Mellencamp’s audience has grown up right along with him, which explains the cheer of solidarity that greeted his line. It might also explain why continuity and generational wisdom formed another sturdy spine in the show, as when Mr. Mellencamp prefaced “Longest Days,” one of his most elegant ballads, with a reminiscence of his grandmother. (Ms. Carter, in her opening set, put even more stock in lineage, singing Carter Family songs as well as a poignant original, “Lonesome Valley 2003,” about the deaths of her mother, June Carter, and stepfather, Johnny Cash.)

Early on, soon after “Lawless Times,” Mr. Mellencamp offered a rock-ribbed “Minutes to Memories,” about the wisdom and obligation passed down from one generation to the next. And here, again, was a figure in a song dispensing advice. “You are young, and you are the future,” he sang. “So suck it up and tough it out/And be the best you can.”