Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Mellencamp Finds Another Gear With Inspired Show

Pittsburgh Post Gazette By Scott Mervis

The documentary that played before the concert Saturday night at Heinz Hall showed John Mellencamp recording last summer at Sun Studio, standing in the spot where Elvis did.

He seems to have gotten more than a new album out of it. While he was on that hallowed ground, he clearly absorbed the spirits of??rock 'n' roll past, because if his game was an eight before, he's taken it up to a 10 on this tour.

The multi-dimensional show opened with a quirky documentary, "It's About You," about the recording of the stripped-down "No Better Than This" and the 2009 summer tour that had him playing the hits for hotdog-eating fans in minor-league ballparks, like the one in Washington County, with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

What came next was a trek through American roots with an array of styles and moods and more instrumental pairings than you could shake a pick at. He and his crack band, led by ridiculously talented guitarist Andy York, took the dynamics up, down and every which way, not even kicking in with the full drum kit till the 18th song.

It began in rockabilly mode, the band churning through "The Authority Song" the way Eddie Cochran would have done it, and putting extra punch into the new song, "No One Cares About Me."

The perfect visual accompaniment was a sepia-toned backdrop of classic architecture behind a string of blue and yellow light bulbs along with the spots.

Four songs in, the dark "Death Letter" had a streak of Delta blues running through it, and introduced the dynamic pairing of fiddler Miriam Strum and accordion player Troye Kinnett. "Walk Tall" was a gem with the fiddle winding through a Kinnett's boogie-woogie piano. The swamping, lurching blues of "The West End" showed that Mellencamp has been listening to Tom Waits and taking notes.

Over the years he's nurtured that image of the cranky aging rocker, but Saturday night he was chatty and in good spirits. "Well, you guys sure seem like a nice bunch of folks tonight," he said, breaking the ice, and promising "Songs you can dance to, songs you can cry to."

The rousing "Check It Out" fell into the former category, while "Jackie Brown" -- introduced with a talk about the powers-that-be not looking out for the well-being of the people -- fell into the latter, and was performed beautifully with just fiddle and guitar.

A tender solo-acoustic "Save Some Time to Dream" was paired with an a cappella sing-along of "Cherry Bomb." For all the cigarettes he's smoked, his voice has held up surprisingly well. He took a moment to make fun of his own musicianship, saying that in the early days of the band, they used to unplug his guitar 'cause he was so terrible.

"Easter Eve" was a rollicking country ballad that led into a honky-tonk version of "Jack and Diane." He was solo acoustic once again for "Small Town," seguing into the gorgeous fiddle-accordion duet of "New Hymn."

Having wooed us with this rootsy cocktail of rockabilly, blues, folk and country, Dane Clark stepped behind the full kit and the band went full-blown into the old arena favorites "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Paper in Fire." Having joked early on that he'd gone from "dangerous young man" to "dangerous old man," Mr. Mellencamp demonstrated that point on a menacing "What if I Came Knocking?"

Mr. York, brilliant all night with his twangs, snarls and feedback, repainted "Pink Houses" with a slide guitar before they took it home with "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."

It might be so 1987 to rave about John Mellencamp, and I never thought I'd say this, but Dylan and Springsteen would be wise to get a DVD of this tour or better yet seen it in person. His best is nowhere near theirs but he showed how you can do it all -- all sides of your craft, quite seamlessly -- in a two-hour set. The fans who were game for this experiment may have seen the best concert of the year.