Plainspoken, lawless, troubled.
Aging rocker John Mellencamp roared into Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday with his tight six-piece band and was all of the above.
Playing a Fender Telecaster and with a voice sometimes as battered as Bob Dylan's sandpaper grit, Mellencamp opened with "Lawless Times" off his new "Plain Spoken" album (Republic Records), his first in five years.
It's also one of his finest and time and again the new material, not only fit in well, it set the tone for the 22-song set.
"Lawless Times," a New Orleans-style stomper with tantalizing melodic strains of Dylan's playful "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35," warned to "keep your eyes open on everybody else."
Likewise, the Americana saga "Troubled Man" finds Mellencamp fixated on age and dread, a world where "too late came too early."
It's a risk to open with newer, unfamiliar songs – especially for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician with so many hits – but it works because the songs and the band are so good.
Electric violinist Miriam Sturm was simply amazing. So was the rest of the especially dapper band.
There is an almost Phil Spector-like majesty to the arrangements with electric violin often doubling Hammond B-3 lines or one of the electric guitar riffs.
When Mellencamp is on electric guitar there are three guitars going at once. That's the makings for a wall of sound, quite evident on "Small Town."
But a stinging electric slide guitar can get one's attention, too, and Mellencamp sang Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" blues backed by double-bass, a simple drum kit and slide guitar.
The swagger started to show. Later in the evening, the star of the show would shimmy, slide step and even work in a dance spin.
But that charm wasn't found in the brutal new number, "The Isolation of Mister."
It's a breakup, don't-give-a-damn song that captivated the well-heeled audience of 1,750 with lines like ""I never made love with my heart in it" and "I'm quittin' on you today."
"Jack & Diane," played alone on acoustic guitar, was obligatory; a touching song about his late grandmother was not.
Backed by saloon-style piano, Mellencamp did his best Cab Calloway (maybe Tom Waits) on the fun "The Full Catastrophe."
Opening act Carlene Carter joined the band onstage for a ballad spotlight "Away From This World" and the rollicking "Tear This Cabin Down," singing with Mellencamp on one microphone.
The hits started to come like an avalanche with "Paper in Fire," "Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song" (still gets people moving with its Young Rascals beat and Tom Petty guitars), "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bob."
Aging is often the theme of his newest songs. At the end of the night, before the last song ("Cherry Bomb"), it was still on Mellencamp's mind.
"People like to talk about old times," he said. "The only problem with old times is you gotta be old to have 'em."
Plainspoken from start to finish – not a bad way to rock 'n' roll.