South Bend Tribune: Mellencamp, Daring, Creative At Morris

South Bend Tribune By Andrew S. Hughes

John Mellencamp plays to a packed house at the Morris Performing Arts CenterSo do rockabilly, country and spirituals, the other three main ingredients for much of his concert Saturday at the Morris Performing Arts Center.

The Indiana native devoted more than two-thirds of the set list to new songs and reworked versions of older songs, usually in one or more of those four styles, before ending with a rock set that was mostly greatest hits but still managed to sneak in two recent songs given full-band arrangements.

It takes daring and creativity to do that, and Mellencamp and his band proved they have both —as well as the material to back it up.

Much of Saturday’s set list came from Mellencamp’s stellar new album, “No Better Than This,” and his 2008 masterpiece, “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.”

He recorded “No Better Than This” at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson recorded in 1936. T Bone Burnett produced the album and used a 1955 mono recorder and a single, vintage RCA microphone.

For this tour, Mellencamp divided the show into three parts — a small combo, solo acoustic (with occasional accompaniment) and full-band rock ’n’ roll at the end.

Early on, Mellencamp gave a powerful and mesmerizing performance of Son House’s “Death Letter” that set much of the tone for the night with its tormented slide guitar solo and accompaniment by Andy York.

“Deep Blue Heart” was a low, dark and gruff blues song that featured a Mike Wanchic guitar solo made up of long, fluid phrases that built to a series of snappy chord changes for its resolution, while “No One Cares About Me” from the new album had a jaunty rockabilly feeling.

“Don’t Need This Body” featured ominous solos by York, his picking slow and his choice of notes almost dissonant, while York’s banjo and Wanchic’s mandolin gave the narrative “Easter Eve” both a mythic and whimsical tone.

Miriam Strum’s subtle, long bowing and vibrato on “The West End” gave the song an ominous feel, while her use of vibrato on the lower register gave her fills a haunting quality on “Jackie Brown.”

Mellencamp sounded bemused on “Right Behind Me,” a song about the devil that borrows from the musical language of spirituals and that featured a spare arrangement played with swagger by Mellencamp’s band.

Among the songs Mellencamp rearranged, “Check It Out” had a slower tempo and none of its former anthem qualities, which gave it an introspective quality, while he performed “Cherry Bomb” a cappella and solo, his voice strong and nuanced while the audience clapped and sang along.

“Jack and Diane,” however, received the most radical makeover, as a country two-step that was more interesting to hear as an alternative than as a replacement for the original, especially because the new version does lack the melodrama and the import of its observations on life that are the hallmarks of the “American Fool” version.

The final third of the concert featured full-band versions of such hits as “Scarecrow,” “What If I Came Knockin’?” and “Paper and Fire,” with John Gunnell on electric bass instead of upright and drummer Dane Clark switching to a full kit, as well as a powerful and dramatic version of “If I Die Sudden” from “Life, Death, Love and Freedom.”

Throughout the concert, Mellencamp’s voice sounded strong and resonant if a little gravelly, which fits his new music well.

His delivery was consoling on “Longest Days,” dramatic and nearly speak-sung on “Easter Eve,” and proud and enthusiastic on a semi-solo acoustic “Small Town” (strum and keyboardist Troye Kinnett on accordion joined him at the end and to duet afterward on “Old Rugged Cross”).

Mellencamp pulled off something rare and inspiring for a “classic rock” musician on Saturday: By focusing on his new music and the roots sounds that have become more pronounced in his work over the last decade, Mellencamp challenged his audience and gave it an exhilarating live experience as he defiantly refused to be a greatest hits jukebox.

And that is the mark of an artist.