Arts Desk

Hard Walkin': Mellencamp by Numbers

John Mellencamp... or John C. Reilly?

So, some data has just come back from the lab in RE: last night's Constitution Hall concert by one John Mellencamp, about which I had plenty to say as it was happening.

Man, I don't know why you hipsters all make fun of this guy. Is it because of the "Cougar" he dropped from his name after 1989, when he was in the midst of a string of fine, mournful albums that have aged just fine for having had the good sense to eschew the Top Gun drums and synthesizers that have dated so much Reagan-era music so badly? Is it because of that truck commercial from a few years ago? Is it because he is typically photographed looking like this?

I suppose you have your reasons. But I'm here to tell you, your reasons are crap.

The world is full of 60-year-old (give or take) rock stars now, and they're all still on the road. Some of 'em mail it in and some of them never, ever do. Somehow I'd got it into my head that Mellencamp was of the former variety. I can't really defend this. Based on a couple of interviews (from MTV, which tells you how old they'd be) and some 90s benefit gig appearances, I had a vague impression of him as a cranky, prematurely-old goat who didn't like performing and who only played the hits, an approach that would leave anyone bored and cynical.

Brothers and sisters, I was wrong. The Artist Formerly Known as Coug — yeah, you know what? Screw that hacky joke already — performed 25 songs, opening with an obligatory-feeling "Authority Song" and shutting things down in similar fashion 130 minutes later with a two-fer of monster hits "Pink Houses" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." (I was hoping he might update the lyrics of the latter to name-check Jay-Z or Eminem or somebody, but no dice.)

What came in between was remarkable. Fronting a six-piece band that included an accordionist and a fiddle player along with longtime guitarists Mike Wanchic and Andy York, Mellencamp emphasized his fine, rustic recent work alongside the downbeat songs he'd always placed on his 80s and 90s albums among the radio jams. (The former often outnumbered the latter.) "Jackie Brown," from 1989's Big Daddy album, was a highlight, performed with violin accompaniment during an otherwise solo acoustic set that also included the lovely "Save Some Time to Dream" and an a cappella "Cherry Bomb" he said someone had asked him for on the street that day. "I don't give a fuck about the past," quipped he before singing the sentimental tune.

More than half the set — 13 songs, to be precise — was from the 21st century, if you count Son House's "Death Letter," which Mellencamp didn't cut until 2003. These come mostly from his latter two albums, 2008's Life, Death, Love and Freedom (four) and last year's No Better Than This (six songs), both raw, earthy affairs produced by Americana ambassador T-Bone Burnett. After he fought "Authority" and lost, the show began for reals with "No One Cares About Me." After that, "Death Letter." After that, "John Cockers," a song with the irresistible chorus, "I ain't got no friends." He growled through "Don't Need This Body" and "If I Die Sudden" before the evening was done. Nick Cave sings fewer songs about death than this guy.

You guys, it hurt so good!

Which he did not play.

Once the set moved into hitsville, "Small Town" got a telling lyrical alteration from the just-divorced, now-stepping-out-with-Meg Ryan Mellencamp : "Married some dolls and brought them to this small town / Now I'm starting to think the trouble's with me." So the drunken fools who shouted through the acoustic performance, and worse, clapped along, couldn't quite drown out the words, but nice try, morons!

BIG HITS NOT PRESENT: "Lonely Ol Night", "Crumblin' Down," "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)," and that annoying cover of "Wild Night" that was everywhere in 1994 all made the top 15 of the Billboard Hot 100 and were left out last night. Also, "Hurt So Good" made it to No. 2 in '82.

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  • terri

    i was at the show last night and I concur, it was awesome. i was expecting an old cranky has been and instead was surprised to see a full band and full sound, old songs and new! it rocked.

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  • yrral

    I was there and I also thought it was great. I had never seen him live before. Only downside: as the review mentions I also don't understand what possesses people to yell out during the quiet songs....

  • carl

    Sorry - I thought the show was only good and was disappointed. The songs were great, especially the solos or the few with a small group. But, the drums were way too loud and drowned out some of the best parts from the fiddle and accordian. John put on a good performance - I just wish I could have heard more of it, and less rhythm section.

  • vince k

    A really good show. The band was smoking hot and Mellencamp was definitely into the show. What's curious is the carbon copy stories used at every stop on the tour. Totally scripted including "I met a guy while taking a walk this afternoon" who wanted to hear Cherry Bomb. Used at all the previous shows. The girl pulled from the audience at the same point in the show also from earlier shows on the tour. No problem if you're planning to catch only one show. In a nutshell, highly rehearsed but exciting.