Pennsylvania's The Morning Call: For John Mellencamp, Oh, Yeah, Life Goes On

The Morning Call By John J. Moser

More than almost any of his stylistic forebears, or contemporaries, John Mellencamp has faced aging not with the sage understanding of a Bob Dylan or a sad searching of a Bruce Springsteen, but with the same defiance that has always marked his music.

That still was the case, perhaps more than ever, during Mellencamp’s nearly sold-out show Monday at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music.

John Mellencamp at Philadelphia's Academy of Music on Monday
Photos by John J. Moser

It wasn’t that Mellencamp was trying to fight age — although, by playing 24 songs in a show that lasted two hours and 10 minutes, he certainly was giving it a run.

Rather, Mellencamp was refusing to let age dictate his life.

He knows, for example, that being 59 has brought limitations (“This getting older, hell it ain’t for cowards,” he sang in “Don’t Need This Body”).

But he wants to face it his way, saying in a great, heartfelt “The Real Life” that “it don't matter how old you are/Or how old one lives to be/I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives/And how we deal with our own destinies.”

Mellencamp did that by confronting his past rather than either embracing or avoiding it. He played most of his hits, but often gave them a more rustic feel, starting with the opening “Authority Song,” which he recast as rockabilly.

Late in the show, he played his biggest hit, “Jack and Diane,” as folk-bluegrass. He sang a shortened “Cherry Bomb” alone and a cappella.

He was backed by a four-piece band that on other songs would swell to six to add accordion, piano or fiddle. Or, it would shrink to him and another player or two. He started “Small Town,” for example, alone on acoustic guitar before the fiddle and accordion joined him.

But none of the changes seemed to faze Mellencamp’s crowd, which, because it has aged — or at least matured — with him, seems to also have followed his musical journey, and embraced it.

They shared not only in the emotions of his new songs, but seemed to connect to the maturation of his hits. On the new “Save Some Time to Dream,” they cheered such sentiments as “Always question your faith” and “so others will not judge you.”

The first third of the show was heavy on songs from Mellencamp’s last two discs, 2008’s excellent “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” and last year’s ”No Better Than This.” He sang “No One Cares About Me” in a latter-day Dylan growl, his band playing as if in a session at Memphis’ Sun Studios (where, not coincidently, some of the disc was recorded).

But it was on bluesman Son House’s “Death Letter” that Mellencamp, chewing gum and wearing a whispy gray beard (he’s also allowed his hair to go gray) really opened up. Backed by an ominous violin, accordion, mandolin and slide guitar, dancing like James Brown, he forcefully spat out the lyrics: “It’s hard to love somebody when they don’t love you.”

That song and several others through the night were reminders of Mellencamp’s recent divorce from Boyertown native Elaine Irwin. In “Small Town,” he changed the lyrics to say, “Married a couple of girls and brought them to this small town …”

He closed the first part of the show with a transcendent “Check It Out,” which has become more regretful and less soaring. But it still was so good that it raised goosebumps, and the crowd shouted along.

The middle of the show often found him singling alone in a spotlight or telling stories, such as how his 100-year-old grandmother’s comment led to his devastating “Longest Days” or a shaggy-dog tale about how he encountered the devil at 15 before the wonderful new story song, “Easter Eve.”

But the end of the show was full-bore arena rock — the kind that made Mellencamp famous. “Rain on the Scarecrow” was brooding and ominous. There was no ambiguity on “Paper in Fire,” as Mellencamp stood at the edge of the stage firing guitar riffs and swings of his fist with equal intensity.

It was fitting that Mellencamp looked his happiest on “What If I Came Knocking,” a song about romantic possibilities, and was so emphatic and defiant on “If I Die Sudden” that he dropped the gum from his mouth.

Perhaps the irony is that, while Mellencamp’s confrontation of age seems to resonate so loudly these days, it’s what he’s been singing about all along: from “holding on to 16 as long as you can” in “Jack and Diane” to “17 has turned 35” in “Cherry Bomb.”

And his closing songs — faithful versions of “Pink Houses” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A” — demonstrated that.

The former had one of the coolest concerts moments I’ve ever seen: A guy in an opera box high above the stage was got so caught up, he took off his cowboy hat and threw it to Mellencamp, who not only caught it and put it on his head, but then threw it back. And the guy caught it.

And for the latter, Mellencamp brought a woman on stage to dance, as Springsteen did in his “Dancing in the Dark” video, back when Mellencamp was just starting to hit.

Mellencamp and audience member, dancing in the dark

But this was no act of youthful exuberance — it was a celebration.

Celebration that, Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.