John Mellencamp made good on his promise to do a show that fans who appreciate musicianship and songwriting would enjoy. He was clear during an interview earlier this month about putting on an “age-appropriate” performance since, at 63 years old, he doesn’t at all feel pressured to pretend he’s still 25 on stage. Tuesday night at Microsoft Theater (formerly Nokia Theatre L.A. Live) in downtown Los Angeles, Mellencamp played gig 75 of his 80-city tour, which concludes in his home state of Indiana on Aug. 4.
Even that many dates into the jaunt, Mellencamp and his solid backing band, some of which have been with him since the start four decades ago, didn’t show signs of fatigue. They came straight out with “Lawless Times” off the latest record, “Plain Spoken,” which was released last September.
Mellencamp was cool with his strut out on stage, his voice a bit grittier and pleading as the band transitioned into “Troubled Man.” Though his vocal is certainly standout and easily identified, he has always sounded a bit like the late Joe Cocker, mixed with some Bob Dylan and a dash of Leonard Cohen.
All of that is especially true on the offerings from the new record, which is much more focused on roots rock and folk music. When he belts out, “I am a troubled man,” it’s believable. The same goes for “The Isolation of Mister” when the music lowers and he honestly delivers, “Thought I was livin’ a life of freedom, but I was living in a cage.”
All three of those new tracks sat well within this carefully thought out setlist. He didn’t ignore the hits – there were still a few of those sparsely peppered in. After playing “Small Town,” which obviously went over awesome with his loyal followers, he finally spoke to the crowd and introduced himself. He had a little fun and danced across the stage with spirit, but he definitely doesn’t have moves like Jagger.
He dug deep into the blues with a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” and took on almost an entirely different personality as the lights dimmed and he stood solo in a spotlight, giving the feeling as if we had all been transported into an old underground blues nightclub as he performed “The Full Catastrophe.”
Storytelling was also a fun and interesting part of the show. Mellencamp has a lot of personality and some decent comedic timing. Before heading into “Longest Days,” he shared a story about going over to spend time with his 100-year-old grandmother, who always referred to him as Buddy, before she passed away and how he laid on her bed with her as she prayed. At some point during the prayer, she muttered, “Lord, me and Buddy are ready to come home.”
“What?!” he said with a laugh. “Grandma ‘me and Buddy’ are not ready to come home! Buddy has a lot more sinning he wants to do.” He got the idea for the song after his Grandma looked him dead in the eyes and said, “You’re gonna find out that life is short even in its longest days.”
It was moments like this that really made the evening feel more intimate and special. Sure, Mellencamp doesn’t have the vocal range he used to, but he still performs with gusto and a whole lot of heart. He didn’t have to do much with “Jack & Diane,” which got the acoustic treatment. Fans roared along as he played guitar solo on stage, but everyone jumped the gun and skipped a verse and headed right into the chorus.
“No!” he yelled with a laugh, stopping for a moment. “That’s the chorus! There’s two verses and then a chorus. It goes like this ... Suckin’ on a chili dog, outside the Tastee Freeze ...”
Once corrected, everyone got back in line and handled business correctly. Mid-set, violinist Miriam Strum and accordion player Troye Kinnet played an entertaining instrumental medley, both very serious seasoned pros, but they were having a good time. Opener Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter, joined Mellencamp on two songs off of the soundtrack to “Ghost Brothers of Darlkand County,” a musical Mellencamp worked on for almost 15 years with horror author Stephen King. Carter took the lead on “Away From This World” and the pair shared a mic and joined hands for “Tear this Cabin Down.”
Drummer Dane Clark and bassist John E. Gee got to go a little crazy with “Crumblin’ Down” and Mellencamp pointed out the similarities between his hit “Authority Song” and one of his favorite tunes to cover since he was performing at the age of 13 in Indiana clubs, his version of Cannibal & the Headhunters “Land of 1000 Dances.” Everyone sang along to the “na na na na na” hook. Carter came out once again at the end of “Pink Houses” and the evening came to a close, without an official encore, but with a grooving extended version of “Cherry Bomb.”