The Chronicle Herald: Mellencamp Wows Fans With Rock-And-Roll Dance Party

By Stephen Cooke - The Chronicle Herald

Just in case the nearly 4,000 people assembled at the Dartmouth Sportsplex weren’t sure who they were there to see on Monday night, there was an announcement to remind us after the arena went completely dark and we were treated to a blast of late-career Johnny Cash.

“He’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... a champion for family farms ... and an advocate of freedom of speech ... John Mellencamp!”

After that impressive resume, I felt a tad underdressed for the evening in jeans and a Willie Nelson T-shirt, but within seconds reassurance came as Mellencamp and his band came out swinging, shaking his fist at The Man with Authority Song, and raising the room to its feet to sing along, wave its hands in the air, and face constant admonishment from facility staff for trying to take pictures.

Like the song says, “authority always wins,” but you can’t blame folks for trying, especially when the singer and his band were so darn dapper; even drummer Dane Clark wore a vest, which couldn’t have been the most comfortable garment by the end of the hour-and-40-minute set, the first half of a two-night stand at the downtown Dartmouth complex.

Clad in black jacket and slacks, with a bit more grey in his trademark pompadour, the rock icon of Indiana indicated that this was going to be a rock-and-roll dance party. He kept the energy going with the Sun Records stomp of No One Cares About Me from his recent triumph No Better Than This, recorded at Sun and other iconic rooms using only a single microphone and a 1950s Ampex tape recorder.

As Andy York played rockabilly guitar licks somewhere between Carl and Luther Perkins, John Gunnell’s standup bass and Troye Kinnett on upright piano provided the seal of authenticity. Unfortunately, Miriam Sturm’s violin was buried somewhere in the mix, a fault that would be corrected a song later as her strings combined with Kinnett’s accordion to provide mournful backup to York’s swampy slide guitar on a cover of Death Letter, from Mellencamp’s 2003 collection of blues and roots covers, Trouble No More.

I would have been perfectly happy if the evening had continued in this vein, the gruffer edge in Mellencamp’s voice really suits the newer material on No Better Than This, but folks were largely there to hear the hits, and Lord knows he’s got a trunk full of them.

Easing us into the pool with the relaxed groove of Key West Intermezo (I Saw You First), there were still a few people up and dancing, displaying moves I haven’t seen since high school — in the ’80s, natch — as Kinnett’s accordion set the pace.

Then it was Sturm’s turn to carry the more passionate Love and Happiness, before both musicians united for Check It Out, a plea for “a better understanding” of living and making the most of your life. Accordingly (accordioningly?), there was even more dancing in the aisles and up on the mezzanine as arcs of blue, white and yellow lights lit up the stage like it was a summer backyard gathering.

“Good evening, I’m John Mellencamp,” he said, strapping on an acoustic guitar and introducing himself for the first time (and for those who missed his CV over the PA at the start). “Tonight we’re gonna play some songs you know, some songs you don’t know, songs you can dance to, and songs that might make you think a bit.”

The next song didn’t require any thought at all, merely a Pavlovian response as Mellencamp sang the first line, “A little ditty...” and immediately everyone fell in line with the rest of the words about Jack and Diane, heartland love and Tastee-Freez chili dogs. It was a great moment and a good sign that the crowd would be putty in his hands for the rest of the evening.

The band slowly built back up through The Longest Days — following an amusing anecdote about the singer’s 100-year-old grandmother — and Small Town, before coming back in full-on electric mode for Rain on the Scarecrow. Mellencamp rolled up his sleeves to tackle his anthem for Farm Aid — which returns Sept. 22 with Neil Young, Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews, to Hershey, Pa. — sung with all the menace and fury of the 1985 original.

Through it all, Mellencamp never lost the audience’s attention, keeping the tight rein of a Roman charioteer on his band, most of whom have been with him since the late ’90s (guitarist Mike Wanchic is unfortunately recovering from surgery in Indianapolis). He drove them to a fever pitch on If I Die Sudden — with a thumping big beat from Clark, screaming guitar from York and Sturm’s virtuoso bowing — before bursting the dam on Crumblin’ Down, with everyone dancing and perfectly in sync with the action on stage.

Bigger hits followed, Pink Houses, the creaky R.O.C.K. in the USA (does anyone know if the title’s acronym actually stands for anything?) and the show closer Cherry Bomb, but it felt like the Hoosier hotshot was cooling everyone off and getting them ready for the ride back home.

The energy of Mellencamp and his band was a good contrast to opening act Cowboy Junkies, whose set of trance-inducing beauty was ill-suited to hockey rink acoustics.

They worked their transformative magic on Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down and the cover that brought them international attention, Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, while original tunes like 3rd Crusades and Good Friday showed them working the darkness of the room to their advantage.

Michael Timmins’ guitar snarled like a junkyard dog straining at the end of its leash on the former, and sister Margo worked herself up from cafe croon to a throat full of soul on the latter, making me want to spend more time with their recent Nomad Series of four CDs, showcasing Cowboy Junkies as a band still brimming with ideas and inspiration.