The Morning Call: John Mellencamp, If Not Improving, Is Still Rockin', Still Great, At Allentown Fair

John J. Moser - The Morning Call

Mellencamp certainly still is creating great new music. His show started with a bluesy, boozy blast of “Lawless Times” from his 2014 album “Plain Spoken,” his expressive, six-person band barreling behind him.

“John Cockers” from his 2008 disc “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” was similarly strong world’s-gone-to-hell blues, with his voice a mean growl.

And a great version of “Minutes to Memories,” a minor hit from 1986, showed just how deep Mellencamp’s catalog is.

The first hit song Mellencamp played from his 1980s heyday was the most appropriate for the location: “Small Town,” an invocation of love for the agrarian life the fair represents. But he played it far more rugged and rocky, perhaps jaded by time.

But he followed it with the growled Delta blues of Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passing,” then a wicked, dirty-groove version of his hit “Pop Singer” — just in case you didn’t believe he “never wanted to write no pop songs.”

Then he dove into two of the hits fans clearly wanted to hear. “Check It Out” was even more wistful, as Mellencamp sang, “Is this all that we’ve learned about living?” and a mournful guitar and soul-searing violin soared behind him.

Then his biggest hit, “Jack & Diane,” with its prescient lyrics, “Oh yeah, life goes on/Long after the thrill of living is gone,” done alone on an acoustic guitar, with the crowd gleefully singing the choruses.

“This next song I’ve been singing for a long time, and I’ll keep singing for as long as you want to hear it,” Mellencamp told the crowd

Mellencamp returned to the present with three songs from his excellent new disc “Sad Clowns and Hillbillies.” The first two were offered as duets with opening act Carleen Carter: The thumping and gritty “Grandview,” Carter singing far more emphatically than she did during her own set, and the fun and bouncy gospel number “My Soul’s Got Wings.” Then he did ”Easy Target.”

He left the stage for his fiddle player and accordionist to play an instrumental medley of his early John Cougar hits, including “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” and “I Need a Lover.”

Mellencamp returned with a run of hits, starting with the ominous warning of “Rain on the Scarecrow” — another appropriate song for the fair. The cautionary “Paper in Fire” and its lyric “We keep no check on our appetite” resonated even more in this era, and it ran right into a booming, rumbling and loud “Crumbling Down.”

A rollicking ”Authority Song” had the crowd dancing, especially when Mellencamp added a two-minute segue of the 1960s song “Land of 1,000 Dances.”

“I wrote this song when I was 26, and I still feel the same way I did when I wrote it,” Mellencamp said. “And I can tell there’s some people out here that feel the same way.”

He closed the main set with a wonderful “Pink Houses,” again bringing out Carter to sing with him. It was far more reflective and bitterly more ironic that the original — all the nuances that current country hit-maker Old Dominion so badly missed when it did a version of the song on Sunday, 8 miles away at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks in Bethlehem.

Before the encore, Mellencamp talked about how members of his band have been with him 40 years, and how they talk about the old times.

“It’s only appropriate that we close the show with a song about old times,” he said before kicking into “Cherry Bomb.”

But it was as good as it was when he first sang it 30 years ago. If Mellencamp isn’t still improving, maybe it’s because he was so good to begin with.

Carter, unappreciated by a restless early crowd, opened the show with a lovely nine-song set that started with her 1993 Top 5 “Every Little Thing,” but sang none of her other hits from that era.

Instead, she included the Carter Family songs (she’s a daughter of June Carter Cash) “May the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Little Black Train.”

“That doesn’t mean that I still cannot rock like hell,” she said.

Her mother and stepfather, Johnny Cash, played the fair five times. “So I probably was here before with them,” she said.

At piano, her voice shone and soared on the lovely “Lonesome Valley,” a tribute to her mother and Cash from her recent album, “Carter Girl.”

But perhaps her best was a mournful, lovely version of “Easy From Now On,” the hit she wrote that was recorded by Emmylou Harris and, more recently, by Miranda Lambert. Again at piano, she closed with the devastating self-examination song “Change.”