Whether you walked into the Benedum to see an older, grayer John Mellencamp dig into Americana roots or kick it out like old times on "Pink Houses," you walked out happy Tuesday night.
The Indiana rocker has made one of the more artful transitions from arena spectacle to theater show, offering something rich and beautiful while also bringing the rock.
Dressed in old-timey black suits, with black crossover ties, the band took its place in the moody lighting below a rustic backdrop of a train car sprayed with puzzling, unintelligible graffiti.
Mr. Mellencamp, with an open collar to his black suit, promised at the outset there would be "some songs you know, some you don't know; some songs you can sing to, some songs you can dance to."
The first couple were likely grouped in "songs you don't know" given that many fans disregard new albums by even their favorite Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. He opened with "Lawless Times," running down a list of people you can't trust, as in your neighbor, your husband, your wife, your police, your priest and the government -- fairly timeless Mellencamp themes offset by a rollicking swing arrangement.
Also stemming from last year's "Plain Spoken" were "Troubled Man" and "The Isolation of Mister," a powerful song in the growling mode of recent Dylan that laments discarded relationships with the resigned hook of "I'm quittin' on you today."
As usual, his six-piece band was utter perfection, with two versatile guitarists (longtime sidekick Mike Wanchic and Andy York) able to rip it up while also letting violinist Miriam Sturm fire off most of the flashy solos.
Her aggressive style had people jumping to their feet.
They were there most of the time anyway because Mr. Mellencamp kept tossing in the "sing to" and "dance to" songs, like "Human Wheels," "Check it Out" and "Small Town," during which he stopped to soak in the huge ovation when he sang "that's probably where they'll bury me."
And then there was "Jack and Diane." "I've been playing this next song a loonnng time," he said, standing on the stage alone with an acoustic guitar. "I'm not even sure why I even play it anymore. I think I playit just 'cause you wanna hear it!"
Well, yeah ... and he trusted the fans to help him through it, leading to a moment of hilarity when they jumped the gun. "Oh no, that's not right," he said, stopping the song.
"That's the chorus! There's two verses and then a chorus." He never once stepped to the mike to sing that particular chorus.
In the more adventurous segment, Mr. Mellencamp took a page from Tom Waits for his smoky vocal on "The Full Catastrophe," backed with just a barroom piano, and shared the mike with opening act Carlene Carter on the countrified "Away From This World" and mean, bluesy "Tear This Cabin Down," two songs from a 15-year theatrical project that's about to be revived in London.
Also enriching the Mellencamp theater experience was a cabaret-style violin-accordion interlude touching on "Jerry," "Just Another Day" and "I Need A Lover" before the singer returned, in white T-shirt and vest, to kick the show into another gear with "Rain on the Scarecrow" and
"Paper in Fire." The violin, of course, was sizzling.
You could sense him channeling The Boss when they pounded through "Crumblin' Down" and "Authority Song," the frontman taking the rest of the band down to holler, "I can feel those drums beatin' in my heart!"
They closed the set with a rousing "Pink Houses," the violin adding a thread of melancholy to the sing-along anthem. Admitting he's gotten more sentimental with age -- the Mr. Nice Guy tag never really fit him-- he sent the fans home with a salute to old times on "Cherry Bomb."
Just like his Cultural District stop five years ago, people were raving on the way out, and for good reason. At 63, and with nothing left to prove but his staying power, he still has the fight in him and he's still finding ways to push his limits as an artist.
Opening the show, the spunky Ms. Carter could have told stories for 40 minutes and everyone would have been cool with that. One of the singing Carter sisters, she is the daughter of the late June Carter
Cash and stepdaughter of Johnny. She said her mama told her to write a song like "Ring of Fire," to which she replied "I'll get right to work on that." She didn't write one that earthshaking, but she had some success in the '90s with "I Fell in Love" and "Every Little Thing." She opened with the latter, showing off the bold Southern voice that runs in the family.
The set ranged from "The Bitter Bend," which had her acoustic guitar chugging like a train, to piano ballad "Lonesome Valley 2003," an homage to June, Johnny and her sister Julie, who all died that year.
Scott Mervis: [email protected]; 412-263-2576.
Minutes to Memories
Stones in My Passway (Robert Johnson cover)
The Isolation of Mister
Check It Out
Jack and Diane
The Full Catastrophe
Away From This World
Tear This Cabin Down
Violin and accordion medley
Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper in Fire
If I Die Sudden
Authority Song / Land of 1000 Dances