John Mellencamp springs back to fiery life at the Greek Theatre
Review: Emboldened by a Hall of Fame induction and his best album in years, the Heartland rocker is once again delivering profound, passionate performances.
By BEN WENER
Could it be that John Mellencamp has finally got his fire back?
And could that be because finally, some 23 albums into a three-decade-plus career and two months before he turns 57, the venerable rocker once derisively dismissed as the poor man's Springsteen is now getting the respect he deserves?
Both questions admittedly seem absurd.
For starters, anyone who has bothered to pay attention to Mellencamp's work this decade – which, granted, is considerably fewer people than the multitudes who turned him into an idol in the '80s – would know that he's rarely been more committed to the Guthrie-esque ideal of the singer-songwriter as social firebrand. More than ever he has cast himself as a revolutionary with a populist platform out to affect some peace, love and understanding – maybe even some change.
From 2001's "Cuttin' Heads" (issued a month after 9/11) to 2003's stark set of folk and blues covers, "Trouble No More," to the outspoken patriotism of last year's "Freedom Road" and his latest disc, the darkly rueful "Life Death Love and Freedom," Mellencamp has become increasingly political and concerned with both the welfare of the nation and his own mortality. His concerts, too, have become message-heavy while still delivering hits; his most recent show prior to Thursday night's superb Greek Theatre performance came three years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, where he made equally fed-up co-star John Fogerty look subtle by comparison.
Likewise, it's ludicrous to claim Mellencamp hasn't gotten at least the lion's share of his due, as his record sales prove.
True, though he placed 22 songs in the Billboard Top 40 back when Casey Kasem's weekly countdown still mattered, he only ever scored one No. 1 single: that timeless tale of two 'Merican kids growing up in the Heartland, "Jack & Diane." Yet seven of his albums have gone platinum, three have gone triple platinum (although one is a best-of) and two indelible monsters (his 1982 commercial breakthrough "American Fool" and his 1985 critical breakthrough "Scarecrow") have sold in excess of 5 million copies. For a nearly 20-year run, in fact – spanning, somewhat tellingly, from 1979's "John Cougar" to 1998's "John Mellencamp" – everything the guy touched at least went gold.
So why the opening queries about regaining some spark thanks to delayed recognition?
Maybe because Mellencamp's new T Bone Burnett-burnished album, though bereft of hooks or feel-proud anthems like last year's truck commercial "Our Country," is nonetheless one of the Indianan's best works ever, a meditation on its title topics that pulls no punches with either hot-button issues (like the racially charged Jena 6 trial in Louisiana) or the inveterate smoker's own fate.
"Ain't gonna need this body much more," he sings midway into the disc, "I put in 10 million hours, washed up and worn-out for sure." He reiterated that point Thursday night more than once – in the chorus "life is short, even in its longest days," for instance, or with a hopped-up version of his gospel blues "If I Die Sudden." Should it happen, "Please don't tell anyone / There ain't nobody needs to know that I'm gone / Just put me in a pine box / Six feet underground / Don't be callin' no minister / I don't need one around."
Quite a bleak change-of-pace from the guy who still wrapped up this show by having everyone call a loved one so that his most world-renowned chant – "oh yeah, life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone" – could be heard by more than the 6,000 or so on hand at the Greek.
It might be wise to put his dourness down to play-acting, for Mellencamp, who's been writing a musical with Stephen King for some time now, has long shared stories through the mouths of others, in the manner of Springsteen or Randy Newman.
Thursday such choices included a rumble-drummed, slide-guitar rendition of "Pink Houses," enhanced by a striking backdrop divided like a drive-in screen simultaneously showing, from left to right, "Hud," "The Last Picture Show" and "Easy Rider"; the gritty farmer's plight of "Rain on the Scarecrow," which outdid the smoldering rage and shattered dreams of "Paper in Fire" earlier in the set; and, to lead into a revealing and chatty solo acoustic portion, the hard-nosed lessons of the 77-year-old steel worker in "Minutes to Memories." "You are young, and you are the future," that character implores, "so suck it up, and tough it out, and be the best you can." (Click here for a complete set list.)
All the same, at times Mellencamp hinted, with more self-deprecating humor than he's known for, that this new album might be nakedly autobiographical. "Man, am I condemned to loneliness and cigarettes on the breezeway at 80?" he said while interrupting "Young without Lovers" (and "old without friends") to explain its meaning. Sensing the crowd wasn't completely willing to indulge his morbid Seeger-style sing-along, he added: "Oh, you're those kinda people who think 60 is the new 40. Naw, man – 40's 40 and 60's 60."
Regardless of what's fact and what's fiction, what's undeniable is that Mellencamp is now performing with renewed vigor. At the Bowl in '05 he was a primarily an entertainer going through the motions, serving up "Hurts So Good" and "Ain't Even Done with the Night" only to ensure fans got their money's worth. Here, ditching those tired tunes in favor of more relevant ones that kept his purpose on point ("Check It Out," "Crumblin' Down," "Human Wheels"), he was more like a legend achieving vitality once more, entering late-career golden years in classic style, a black vest covering a black shirt with sleeves rolled high and tight.
What accounts for the spring in his step, I think, is an overdue honor: his induction earlier this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's almost as if it were not only a pat on the back he long had wanted (though I bet he'd never admit that, and I could be wrong) but also the push he needed to return to both the road and recording reinvigorated – eager to keep fighting authority even if authority always wins.
Besides, as he pointed out before zipping into a seamless string of hits (including "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.") to finish off this show, "When all else fails, we can dance." My only complaint: By the time he had 'em grooving in the aisles, he was calling it a night. Another 15 minutes of fun wouldn't have been asking too much.
Another grizzled veteran still at her strongest, Lucinda Williams, opened with a 50-minute set that found her tossing aside any country-folk feel and revving up her four-man band until they purred blooze like an early-'70s Stones. With their otherwise low-key leader in full-blown, tousled-hair rocker-chick mode, they souped up "Essence," charged through "Honey Bee," tore through "Joy" while quoting Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker" and closed with a ripping rendition of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)."
It looked like the same Lu, but it often sounded like no incarnation she's ever presented. Perhaps she's shaking off the sadness of "West" and preparing for something heartier than we've ever heard from her. If so, it's a welcome shift.
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Click HERE for a show gallery.
Click HERE for the set list.
John Mellencamp springs back to fiery life at the Greek Theatre