Times are lean in America right now and John Mellencamp might just be feeling the pains of economic contraction too. Hardly a sell out, Friday’s performance at the Nokia Theater was populated– at about three quarters capacity– with a graying fan base eager to indulge its everyman hero and his rugged, if rambling, tales of hardship, loss and day to day life in the U.S.A.
Never one for complexity in terms of songcraft, Mellencamp has overhauled his image and musical direction in recent years to reflect a newfound dedication to American roots and blues music. The evening opened with a film, projected on three large screens, documenting a number of live performances and recording sessions. With a reverent, Midwestern narrator drawling intermittently about Mellencamp’s artistic authenticity, the crowd was given the chance to see John and his band perform a number of live songs in ballparks across America. Meaning, in essence, John Mellencamp’s band opened for themselves.
After the film wrapped, the ensemble took to the stage and launched into what would be the high point of the evening; a spirited rendition of the bubbly power pop anthem “Authority Song.” Mellancamp has always owned a natural gift for broad hooks and crisply-executed arrangements, and “Authority Song” struck its choruses with purpose and vibrant energy. Unfortunately, he would not indulge his top 40 tendencies for the rest of the concert, preferring to re-imagine both old and new material as chugging blues and rockabilly numbers. The shift in direction was most noticeable on the well-worn megahit “Jack and Diane,” which suffered mightily at the hands of a countrified arrangement that removed all the dynamic power and syncopation of the original version, and replaced it with an almost sleepy, honky-tonk shuffle.
In spite of the set list’s overall lack of energy, Mellencamp’s band impressed with its consistently tasteful playing. The guitar tones were warm and crystal clear while Dane Clark’s drumming was remarkably precise and tonally exemplary, evoking the work of Nashville session greats Buddy Harman and Kenny Buttrey.
Mellencamp prefaced many of his songs with folksy stories that often failed to fully coalesce into coherent narratives. In one instance he spoke of the devil and inexplicably related it to teenage masturbation. Another anecdote chronicled a metaphysical squabble about religion that occurred with his dying, 100 year-old grandmother. The spoken stories, delivered with no shortage of small-town American charm, were at times humorous, but mostly confusing. Most of Mellencamp’s hits were played throughout the evening, but his reinvention as pioneering roots-rocker took all the fun out of what may have been a joyous romp through ’80s pop radio standards.