San Jose Mercury News Concert Review

Review: Mellencamp's classic tunes connect with audience

Lucinda Williams opens up for John Mellencamp at the Greek Theater on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2008, in...«12345»John Mellencamp's classic version of the American Dream, where two young lovers can share a "chili dog behind the Tastee Freeze" and no problem is so big that it can't be handled with the right truck, looks pretty appealing in 2008.

Indeed, it looks a heck of a lot more appealing than the American reality, where a gallon of gas costs almost $5, the economic outlook seems bleak and political unrest is all around. Perhaps that's why Mellencamp's older songs connected so solidly with the crowd during the singer's show on Saturday night at the UC Greek Theatre in Berkeley.

Many of Mellencamp's best-loved tunes, such as "Pink Houses," "Small Town" and "Jack and Diane," evoke warm, Heartland-heavy images of what was perceived to be a simpler time. Whether it was actually less complicated, or that's just nostalgia doing the talking, is another question entirely.

What was not to be questioned was the effect these nostalgic pieces had on the audience. These tunes had fans singing along, pumping their fists in the air and, in general, taking four-minute breaks from reality. What more can you ask for from a pop-rock star?

To be fair, the 56-year-old Indiana native is a more complicated character than some of his hits might suggest and his massive songbook cannot be pegged to one particular theme or vision. Those who have failed to really listen to his lyrics often pigeonhole the crooner formerly called Cougar as a flag-draped cheerleader.

The fact is, however, Mellencamp has a long history of addressing in song the things that he believes must change in this country.

He performed a number of those protest songs in Berkeley and he even used the stage as pulpit to preach about some issues. Surprisingly, those things hardly put a damper on the festivities. To the contrary, delivered in tandem with the more uplifting numbers, these political messages seemed to cast Mellencamp as a hopeful, yet realistic patriot, one who believes in his neighbors and who is willing to fight for change.

Following an opening set by singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, whose performance was highlighted by fiery versions of "Joy," "Righteously" and the AC/DC cover "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)," Mellencamp took the stage and throttled through a double-shot of the hits "Pink Houses" and "Paper in Fire."

Mellencamp, dressed in a black top, blue jeans and boots, was on top of his game from the start, both as a vocalist and as an entertainer. He quickly wiped away lukewarm memories of his last Bay Area performance, a modestly appealing co-headlining date with John Fogerty back in 2005 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, as he led his six-piece band through a superbly paced and passionate night of Americana rock.

What accounted for the change? Well, as a cynic would point out, there were no camera crews at Shoreline, and there was one in Berkeley, there to capture the performance for an upcoming segment on "60 Minutes." Yet, there were other factors to consider, such as his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year and the recent release of his 23rd album, the T Bone Burnett-produced "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."

Whether he was singing a new protest tune like "Jena" or an upbeat oldie such as "The Authority Song," Mellencamp always came across like a man who's very comfortable living in his own skin. All things considered, that might be the true meaning of living the American Dream.

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