John Mellencamp has long explored ideas of community, family and what it means to be an individual within the context — and confines — of those ideas. It’s always been fertile ground, but as he’s gotten older the songs have gained a sense of gravity that resonates with unexpected impact.
Friday night at a sold-out Louisville Palace, the 63-year-old Mellencamp had his share of fun — he’s always been a consummate showman — but there was an underlying richness to his set that was far more impressive.
In song after song he dealt with ideas of community and how our shared experience binds us, even with strangers, in sometimes powerful ways. Then he proceeded to show us, making those ideas manifest.
It was clearly no accident that he opened with “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” introducing in the first song the notion of an unfair world that can overwhelm, and following with one that details the consequences.
“I laughed out loud once, I won’t do that again,” he sang in “Troubled Man,” but there wasn’t defeat in his voice. It sounded more like survival. Then, in a brilliant bit of pacing, he went into “Minutes to Memories,” a 1985 song that deals with similar themes and explicitly about survival.
Because that’s such a beloved song among longtime fans, it brought that idea of community directly and unequivocally into the room. He then had us right where he wanted us, launching into “Small Town,” and it was all over at that moment: The room was his, we were a family of fans, a collection of lawless women and troubled men celebrating a moment when everything felt pretty great despite the long odds.
Mellencamp’s performance wasn’t as hectic as in his arena days but no less assured. He still has plenty of Little Bastard swagger — the fabulous hair doesn’t hurt — and his band was tight and expert without any distracting flashiness. It was, in terms of dynamics, an arena-sized show that has been perfectly scaled down, and the intimacy made it perhaps an even better experience.
Opening act Carlene Carter was all about the intimacy. She performed alone for most of her short set, and her compelling voice and out-sized personality made it feel as if she were sitting in your lap.
Her set was heavy on material from her most recent album, “Carter Girl,” a collection of songs first recorded by The Carter Family beginning in the late 1920s. The Carter family was ground zero for country music as we know it, and Carter carried the weight of that immense legacy with an easy grace and rich humanity.
The Louisville Palace
Jan. 23, 2015
1. Lawless Times
2. Troubled Man
3. Minutes to Memories
4. Small Town
5. Stones in My Passway
6. Human Wheels
7. The Isolation of Mister
8. Check It Out
9. Longest Days
10. Jack and Diane
11. The Full Catastrophe
12. Away From This World (sung by Carlene Carter)
13. Tear This Cabin Down (with Carlene Carter)
15. Rain on the Scarecrow
16. Paper in Fire
17. If I Die Sudden
18. Crumbling Down
19. Authority Song
20. Pink Houses
21. Cherry Bomb