Just before the final song in his superb performance on Wednesday night at the Citi Wang Theatre, John Mellencamp shared a little secret: Even he, the sometimes curmudgeonly rocker, gets sentimental about the old days.
But as good as those days were, it’s a testament to the Rock and Roll Hall of
Famer’s lengthy career that it was a positive thing he didn’t spend all of his
stage time dwelling on them. For just shy of two hours, Mellencamp and his
always crack backing sextet took a tour of both the old songs — often with fresh
twists on the arrangements — and newer material, all with a satisfying gusto.
If anyone in the packed house wanted the hits, they got them, from the evergreen “Small Town” to a joyous sing-along to an acoustic take of “Jack and Diane.” If diehard fans were hoping for deep cuts, they had couple of choice options as Mellencamp drew on tracks from nine of his 22 albums. He also included a pair of tunes from his theatrical collaboration with Stephen King, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” which featured spirited assistance from opener Carlene Carter.
Rightfully refusing to become a nostalgia act, the heartland rocker delved into solid tracks from his new-millennium repertoire, including a trio from his 2014 album “Plain Spoken.” Among those were the churning opener “Lawless Times,” which found him bemoaning a litany of modern ills in an almost Tom Waits-ian grizzled growl.
He went the other way vocally, opening up to a powerful howl, on Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway” from his 2003 covers album, “Trouble No More,” prowling the front of the stage testifying the blues, gripped by the song. And the prayerful folk of “Longest Days,” dedicated to its inspiration, his late grandmother, was a vision of bittersweet, wistful beauty.
Among the left-field choices were an accordian-and-fiddle pas de deux with Troye Kinnett and Miriam Sturm re-creating “Overture” from “Mr. Happy Go Lucky,” and, from that same album, the deliciously slinky “The Full Catastophe,” with Mellencamp unleashing a devilish vocal on the Leonard Cohen-esque torch song.
At the same time, Mellencamp didn’t simply perform perfunctory version of his classics. Several, including the still pulse-quickening “Paper in Fire” and the harrowing “Rain on the Scarecrow,” received fresh instrumental tweaks.
The night ended in a delirious barrage of hits. “Crumblin’ Down,” still full of fiery defiance, gave way to a jubilant “Authority Song,” with a dash of “Land of 1,000 Dances” thrown in for good measure. The sequence segued into a hearty sing-along on “Pink Houses,” and culminated with the wry ode to the good old days, “Cherry Bomb.”