Winnipeg Free Press: Rocker Mellencamp Gives New Twist To Old Favourites

Winnipeg Free Press By Rob Williams

Rocker Mellencamp gives new twist to old favourites
Show thrills city crowd

For John Mellencamp fans, it might not get any better than Monday's show at the Centennial Concert Hall.

The Indiana rocker brought his No Better Than This tour to the city and delivered a two-hour showcase equally divided between newer material and older favourites, with some songs receiving slight to radical makeovers -- which has caused a few complaints on online message boards from fans who don't like the changes.

For people who didn't like the revamped versions, stay home and listen to the albums if you want to hear them the same way every time. Mellencamp has been through Winnipeg enough over the years playing his hits the same way they were recorded, so the chance to hear overhauled or stripped-down versions was something fresh for the audience, and probably a welcome relief for the 59-year-old who has been playing some of these songs for nearly 30 years, including three years ago at the MTS Centre.

But if anyone in the sold-out crowd of 2,300 in the intimate, great-sounding confines of the Centennial Concert Hall minded the new versions, it was hard to tell, since almost everything the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and his six-piece band offered received a huge roar of approval.

The tone of the show was established right off the top with a reworked version of the Authority Song, which sounded like something Eddie Cochran would have recorded in the 1950s.

"When I wrote this song I was 22 years old, but I still feel the same way tonight as I did when I wrote it," Mellencamp said as an introduction.

"We're going to be doing all kinds of songs for you tonight. Some songs you know, some songs you don't know, some songs you can sing along to and some songs you can dance to. We're going to play for quite a long time. If there's a song you want to hear be patient, it will probably show up."

And he wasn't lying. Check it Out, Rain on the Scarecrow, Paper in Fire, Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. all made the setlist. He performed Cherry Bomb a capella as the crowd clapped along; Jackie Brown and Small Town were delivered solo with just his acoustic guitar as backing before he was joined by violinist Miriam Sturm; while Jack and Diane was offered up as a country shuffle.

The material wasn't stagnant and neither was the stage setup as Mellencamp's band grew and shrank depending on the song. They were a four-piece for Authority Song and expanded to six with the addition of violin and accordion on gritty versions of Son House's Death Letter and 2008's John Cockers. Mellencamp also showed off his solo side, standing by himself with just an acoustic guitar holding everyone in awe.

The raw quality of the material came from Mellencamp's band, which looked like it was recruited from some southern juke joint, and the singer's voice, which has evolved into a rough and raspy growl thanks to years of smoking. It hasn't lost any of its strength, though, and is perfectly suited to his new roots, blues and bluegrass material, which remains as politically pointed and grounded in reality as ever.

He noted the slow-burning new number West End was about corporations and the way they treat their workers; No One Cares About Me, which Mellencamp tried to turn into a singalong, is about isolation and unemployment; and the ballad Save Some Time to Dream is advice Mellencamp said he got from his father.

The show was billed as an "evening with" so instead of an opening act, the audience was treated to a screening of It's About You, a documentary about the making of his most recent album, No Better Than This, in 2009 while touring with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.

The film, shot in Super 8 by father-son team Kurt and Ian Markus, showed Mellencamp and producer T-Bone Burnett recording the 13-track album with only a single vintage microphone and mono tape recorder at the historic First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga.; Sun Studios; and room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Tex., the same room blues legend Robert Johnson used to record more than 70 years ago.