The Montreal Gazette: John Mellencamp at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts

By Jordan Zivitz - The Montreal Gazette
Photos By Allen McInnis

With every visit to Montreal, John Mellencamp has seemed farther removed from the rock-star idolatry that he was already pretty far removed from once he admitted his surname wasn’t Cougar. If he was a folksinger at heart in the 1980s, he was a folksinger in body, mind and spirit as well for much of his Place des Arts show Thursday night.

But first, the hits. Okay – the hit. Authority Song was a necessary opener, bringing the crowd out of Salle Wilfrid Pelletier’s comfy seats while preparing them for the deep roots Mellencamp would plant during the concert. Singing a 32-year-old’s words from a 60-year-old’s perspective, he brought a weathered acceptance to the admission that “authority always wins” while burnishing the 1983 rocker to fit with the backdrop’s sepia tone.

No One Cares About Me was as deceptively carefree as it was on last year’s outstanding folk/blues album No Better Than This, while The West End was more muscular – at least, after an aimless intro that was a rare lapse from an impeccable band. Violinist Miriam Sturm and accordionist/keyboardist Troye Kinnett in particular brought a vibrancy to recent songs that would have been just as alluring but considerably less fun if they were monochromatic.

The chart-toppers continued to be parcelled out sparingly for much of the set; Check It Out lit up the stage before Mellencamp dismissed the band and was cast in silhouette for Save Some Time to Dream. He prefaced a run of mostly solo acoustic numbers by saying “we’ll be playing for quite some time tonight” – as much a reassurance as a promise, perhaps aimed at the well-lubricated sections of the audience that were screaming for two solid hours of R.O.C.K. in the PdA.

Those screams helped derail a pared-down Jack and Diane – much of the crowd trying to drive it toward its old fist-pumping glory while Mellencamp steered in the opposite direction before half-heartedly giving in to a singalong. Jackie Brown’s journey to troubadour territory was much more successful (granted, it didn’t have as far to travel), with Sturm emerging for a mournful solo.

A stirring violin/accordion instrumental bridged Mellencamp’s one-man take on Small Town and the return of the full band for Rain on the Scarecrow, with the lyrics’ personal apocalypse bleeding through to a toughened arrangement. For the rest of the show, the furious pacing left no time to breathe, although even now Mellencamp wasn’t about to pander. Paper in Fire was bluesier and more solemn, without masking that glorious violin hook. And of course there was Pink Houses, reminding everyone that Mellencamp lamented the vanishing American dream decades before the occupation of Wall St. It was as timely as it was timeless, and made the set-ending R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. and Cherry Bomb seem almost trivial.

No encore was offered, although one was demanded until the road crew brought out the luggage. It was impossible to resent Mellencamp for denying us one last dip into the songbook – not just because he resisted an antiquated concert tradition, but because he had spent two hours embracing so much musical tradition (three hours if you count the pre-show documentary on the making of No Better Than This). Even if anyone came just to shout along to Jack and Diane, they hopefully left with a sense that Mellencamp – an old soul when he was originally fighting authority – has aged as gracefully as any of his peers.

John Mellencamp’s set list:
1. Authority Song
2. No One Cares About Me
3. Death Letter
4. John Cockers
5. Walk Tall
6. The West End
7. Check It Out
8. Save Some Time to Dream
9. Jack and Diane
10. A Ride Back Home
11. Easter Eve
12. Jackie Brown
13. Longest Days
14. Small Town
15. Violin/accordion instrumental
16. Rain on the Scarecrow
17. Paper in Fire
18. Circling Around the Moon
19. If I Die Sudden
20. Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)
21. Pink Houses
22. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
23. Cherry Bomb