A correction was made to this review on July 31, 2003.
John Mellencamp has the bestselling blues album in the country, and he has managed to do it without changing direction. His Columbia disc “Trouble No More” is an absorbing assimilation of the works of blues and folk songwriters into the Mellencamp sound that stormed America in the 1980s. With the band that backed him on record appearing with him in one of only two concerts on his current docket, Mellencamp heartily demonstrated why this marriage of sound and lyric should be sanctioned by a wider audience.
The singer, who supplied the coattails for rural and small-town America to ride on as he championed life’s simpler values in the ’80s, has had his commercial struggles of late. And it’s not that he’s a stagnant artist. His music has advanced, but the fans haven’t followed; “Trouble No More” has an air of familiarity thanks to his Americana melting pot driven by fiddle, accordion and mandolin, complemented by striking, unfiltered blues touches. Just as he boiled down hundreds of rock 45s from the 1960s to create “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” he applies the same methodology to blues and blues-based tunes written between 1903 and the early ’80s.
His distinguishable style — the sound that drove “Authority Song,” “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Cherry Bomb” — is a welcoming platform for the words of Hoagy Carmichael, Willie Dixon and Son House, not to mention the traditional tunes “Diamond Joe” and “To Washington,” which he updates to address current political situations. Woody Guthrie’s “Johnny Hart,” with its dozens of verses and a repeating riff that duplicates the structure of his “Tom Joad,” is the sort of story-song Mellencamp has embraced over the years. It may be the toughest song in this repertoire for the singer to sell, but he did so convincingly at UCLA’s Royce Hall.
“John the Revelator,” the great traditional tune best known via Blind Willie Johnson’s version on Harry Smith’s classic “Anthology of Folk Music,” becomes a ferocious blues stomp in the hands of Mellencamp and slide guitarist Andy York. It was York who gave the evening the hearty blues impetus — his nasty and assertive slide guitar playing derived straight from the records of Elmore James and Hound Dog Taylor, with no rock ‘n’ roll influence.
Mellencamp fleshed out the 80-minute evening with a choice cover that didn’t make the record — Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” — plus his own “Paper in Fire,” “Pink Houses” and a haltingly slowed “Small Houses.” Late in the set he performed “House of the Rising Sun” exactly as the Animals recorded it.
Intended or not, Mellencamp signaled he’s well aware that he’s not the first to update this particular great American songbook and the more it’s heard — in any context — the greater its chance for survival.