Richmond's Times Dispatch: Mellencamp Concert Offered A Mix Of Old And New

Times Dispatch By Hays Davis

John Mellencamp, in a way, opened for himself at the Landmark Theater Thursday night. His show started with a screening of the film "It's About You," a documentary about the artist's 2009 tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

If that sounds a bit like a self-congratulatory move, the documentary added an appealing level of depth to the standard concert experience. Rather than a telling of Mellencamp's story, "It's About You" is more of a travelogue and a period piece, highlighting his work during that time.

Before a backdrop of the kind of faded cityscape depicted at times in the film, the show kicked off with a spirited "Authority Song." Rolling straight through 25 songs with no break, Mellencamp was well served by an accomplished band that included guitarist Mike Wanchic, who has played with the star for 35 years.

After channeling an early-period rock 'n' roll style driven by a stand-up bass and a small drum kit for their first few songs, the band was fleshed out with the addition of fiddle and accordion or keyboards.

Mellencamp's voice has developed more of a growl over the years, but he maintains remarkable vocal strength. It's an instrument that's perfectly suited to a catalogue of songs that aim to provide a voice to a cast of uncelebrated working-class figures.

Songs from his latest album, "No Better Than This," were well-received by an enthusiastic crowd. With "No One Cares About Me" and "Easter Eve," Mellencamp's sound continues to push further toward roots in folk and blues.

Having played some of the evening's songs for nearly 30 years, Mellencamp sought to keep them fresh with a few new approaches. "Jack & Diane" was retooled with a folksier, acoustic-driven version that retained the flavor of the original. The singer handled most of "Small Town" by himself with acoustic guitar, and even stripped "Cherry Bomb" down to a cappella.

After bringing down the tempo for a stretch, the band launched into a strong finish for the night's last eight songs, lighting up "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Paper in Fire," and closing with a rousing "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."

The Landmark crowd was game throughout, enraptured by the hits but attuned to the newer material as well.

A few folks simply couldn't contain themselves during a quiet moment featuring a story about Mellencamp's grandmother, though he didn't seem to mind. Considering how well the performance went over, his grandmother probably wouldn't have either.