For most of Thursday night’s John Mellencamp show at Hinkle Fieldhouse (“first show here since 1967”, Mellencamp commented), it was nearly all you could want: good sound, a refreshingly patient and attentive crowd, and a tight, rehearsed and raw band that seemed to be enjoying their own performance. The show faltered only near the end when it tried to be what it wasn’t.
Though heavy on new material, Mellencamp, who looked fit and handsome in an all-black suit and black shirt, smartly mixed reworked crowd favorites into the 25-song setlist to provide familiar memories paired with less familiar songs. From the opening “Authority Song”, the template of three guitars teamed with a John E. Gee’s stand-up bass and Dane Clark’s stand-up drum kit sounded good. Enough power to push the music, there was also room created for delicate Americana musical touches. Andy York played an underrated, nuanced and nasty rock guitar, and the entire band was gritty and truthful. John’s bands have always been good, and this one has found a home in the recent material.
The opening half-dozen songs were highlighted by an amazing recasting of “Walk Tall” into a Little Feat song, it’s loping groove and Silver Bullet Band piano from Troye Kinnett earned it a place of one of the best performances of the night. Singing “grace, mercy and forgiveness help a man walk tall” illuminated the lyrical theme of the evening: A wiser, less caustic Mellencamp has emerged on his recent records. He understands mortality is part of life, and works to share with his audience those lessons – and that finding a realistic but fulfilling emotional life is a constant, struggling quest.
“West End” from the new No Better Than This album sounded like a close cousin to The Lonesome Jubilee’s “Hard Times for an Honest Man”, and led to John dance across the front of the stage, facing the band – not the calculated “look at the entertainer” moves of 25 years ago, but the actions of someone lost in his own music.
The Hinkle crowd grasped the wistful version of “Check it Out”, with John and guitarist Mike Wanchic working in some old Market Square Arena over-the-head handclaps. Instead of a whiz-bang light show and big screens, John elected to go with subtle changes and no video boards, effectively pulling the eyes of the crowd to the performers.
A story about how his Dad told John to “have fun every day” led into the solo acoustic version of “Save Some Time to Dream”, a gospel/folk song that serves as the lead track on his latest album and the beginning of a portion of the concert that featured solo acoustic guitar playing from Mellencamp, with some occasional help from Miriam Sturm’s violin and Kinnett’s accordian. An acapella (though shortened) version of “Cherry Bomb” quickly became an audience singalong.
Mellencamp told his most engaging story of the night leading into the “Longest Days”, as an unusually talkative Mellencamp (I’ve seen Mellencamp concerts that included a hello, a thank you and a good night) recounted lying in bed with his dying Grandma when he was 42 years old, and she telling him that “life is short, even in its longest days”
Recasting “Jack and Diane” into a new groove didn’t diminish the audience’s ability to sing it back to the stage, and a pleasing “Small Town” was performed solo under a blue spotlight.
The back portion of the two-hour, ten-minute show rolled forward with the more traditional full rock band setup and a bombastic “Rain on the Scarecrow”, as the old building and all its brick played havoc with the low end in the sound mix, creating a bass rumble that overpowered the song, and similar problems plagued “Paper in Fire” and “The Real Life”, diminishing their effectiveness. The band fought through “Human Wheels” to reach “If I Die Sudden” and “No Better Than This”, two newer songs that again connected with both the band and the audience. By this time, the sound guys had done a pretty nice job of getting the mix into a good place again, and “Pink Houses” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” closed the show with good vibes, though lacking some of the fire in the songs played earlier.
The night’s revelation? As the set wound down. there was no need for obligatory show closers, though they were included. The crowd in the fieldhouse accepted his new music – aided by the band’s ability to make it rock. The first part of the show was more than good enough to satisfy – it was excellent. His new music is not his 80’s hit music; he is no longer the rural punk rock band leader. He doesn’t have to be.