Toronto Sun: John Mellencamp Rocks Massey Hall 4 Out Of 5 Stars Review

Toronto Sun By Jane Stevenson

Check it out.

Heartland rocker John Mellencamp has clearly moved on from his ‘80s-era arena-playing self.

But not entirely.

“I used to be a dangerous young man, now I’m a dangerous old man,” joked the 59-year-old Mellencamp at Massey Hall on Wednesday night.

First of all, the singer-songwriter - still looking great with his trademark luxurious hair, buff upper body, and the ability to effortlessly slide and shuffle around the stage while sharply dressed in a brown suit and black short-sleeved shirt - is currently playing theatres for the first time in 13 years.

The intimate tour is in support of his T-Bone Burnett-produced 2010 album of stripped-down and stirring rockabilly-country-folk, No Better Than This.

Secondly, preceding the two-hour-and-ten-minutes of music during the first of two back-to-back shows at Massey was the screening of the documentary, It’s About You.

Filmed by father-and-son team of Kurt and Ian Markus during Mellencamp’s 2009 tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and while he was recording No Better Than This in the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, the Sun Studio in Memphis and the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded, the film essentially educated the audience on the new music they were about to hear.

It’s sounds simple but it was a genius idea, particularly given where and how - with a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine, only one microphone and in mono - No Better Than This was recorded.

And, honestly, I can’t ever remember going to a concert, and seeing a documentary about the artist first before he/she/they played a live set.

Those watching the film also got to see Mellencamp and his now estranged third wife, model Elaine Irwin (he’s reportedly dating Meg Ryan since announcing his separation from Irwin in December 2010), get baptized in a pool inside the church.

The religious imagery continued with the big cross on a chain around Mellencamp’s neck to a tiny Jesus statue resting on his amplifier on stage at Massey.

One big surprise: the ever-present cigarette in Mellencamp’s hand in the film while he was recording given he suffered a mild heart attack in 1994, and the funniest moment was when Sun Studio session bassist Dave Roe told him that Johnny Cash called him one of the ten best songwriters but the film-makers failed to capture the moment with the cameras rolling.

Significantly, Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down was played before Mellencamp and six crack musicians, with special shout-outs to lead guitarist Andy York, fiddler Miriam Strum and drummer Dane Clark, took the stage.

Such crowd-pleasing hits as Authority Song, Check it Out, an a capella Cherry Bomb, a re-invented Jack and Diane, Small Town, Rain On The Scarecrow, Paper In Fire, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. In The USA (with the singer pulling a female patron up on stage to dance and sing with him) - were interspersed throughout the 25-song set.

Mellencamp also alternated between rockabilly, solo acoustic and rock band mode while playing in front of a painted backdrop that included a movie poster for the Paul Newman movie, Hud, after whom he named one of his sons with Irwin.

But the really cool-sounding material were the new songs No One Cares About Me, Save Some Time To Dream, Right Behind Me, and the title track from No Better Than this, which is saying something for Mellencamp after some thirty-plus years in the business, and older tunes like Death Letter, John Cockers, Don’t Need This Body, and Longest Days.