John Mellencamp | 11.06.10

 

Mellencamp’s easy banter with the audience and homey stories of family made it clear that he is truly a man of the people.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Photos: Corey Woodruff
 
Fox Theater, St. Louis
 
The first indication we were in for an evening of real American roots music Saturday night may have been the pristine vintage Airstream trailer parked directly behind the Fox Theater belonging to John Mellencamp – a musician synonymous with the working man of the American heartland, the Midwest’s own Springsteen. The Indiana native stopped at the Fox on his No Better Than This tour, promoting his most recent and 25th album of the same name.
 
The album, produced by the legendary T. Bone Burnett (who also produced Mellencamp’s 2008 album Life Death Love and Freedom, as well as Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s award-winning duet Raising Sand), echoes dance hall days of long ago and features Mellencamp in a different and more mature light, his gruff and instantly recognizable voice lending itself to deeper, murkier tunes.
 
If the songs on this album seem to have the ghost of Johnny Cash haunting them, it might be because it was recorded in part at Sun Studios in Memphis and even features a guest spot by Cash’s upright bassist Dave Roe. Tracks were also recorded at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio in the room where Robert Johnson first recorded and the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., a stop on the Underground Railroad.
 
This journey and the album’s creation is the subject of Mellencamp’s opening “act,” a documentary called It’s All About You giving the audience a tease (and some context) of the songs they were about to hear. After a 30 minute break, as the theater reached near-capacity, the lights fell and a voice came from the darkness to introduce the legendary Mellencamp as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a champion of the American farmer and the “Poet Laureate of the Interstate.”
 
Mellencamp started out strong, giving old-school fans a taste of what they wanted with “Authority Song,” although a looser, stripped-down version, proving that his vocal chops and ability to keep things fresh were still intact.
 
After promising to later return to the old stuff (“be patient, we’ll get to it,” he said), he worked his way through some later material and some new gems from No Better Than This including the catchy “No One Cares About Me” and stirring “The West End.”
 
Violinist extraordinaire Miriam Sturm set the tone for the mellow classic “Check it Out” from The Lonesome Jubilee, as bulbs on strings draped overhead lit up the stage, seemingly transforming the Fox into a barn dance somewhere in Mellencamp’s native Indiana countryside.
 
Then Mellencamp took the stage alone, with just his acoustic guitar for a solo version of the inspiring “Save Some Time to Dream,”  a Dylan-esque ballad reminding us to “Save some time to dream, because your dream may save us all.” He paused mid-way through the song to reflect on this lyric, saying “Y’know it’s true. I’ve come up with some pretty silly shit that turned out pretty good.” If Mellencamp seems to be channeling Dylan at this stage of his carreer, it may be no accident – as No Better Than This was being released this summer, Mellencamp was co-headlining a tour with Dylan.
 
His easy banter with the audience throughout the evening and his homey stories of family made it clear that he is truly a man of the people, still living the Midwestern small town life despite selling more than 40 million albums worldwide with more than 20 Top 40 hits.
 
Asking for the audience’s help with one, he led them through an a capella version of “Cherry Bomb,” then took a moment to acknowledge the other grey heads in the crowd before launching into the old-age lamenting “Don’t Need This Body," singing "This gettting older, ain’t for cowards."
 
Mellencamp’s amazing songwriting talents and stirring vocals drove an acoustic version of “Jackie Brown,” one of his more politically and socially charged songs from the 80s, played solo at first, then driven to a heart wrenching climax with Sturm’s violin.
 
Earlier in the evening, he claimed his band to be the best in the world, and listening to how tight and individually talented they are, it would be hard to argue. In addition to Sturm, keyboardist/accordion player Troye Kinnett, guitarists Michael Wanchic and Andy York, drummer Dane Clark and upright/electric bassist John Gunnell backed Mellencamp to perfection on bluesy new songs as well as his old rock and roll classics.
 
One of Mellencamp’s oldest and most beloved hit songs, “Jack and Diane” was given new life in a delightfully breezy, ambling, country-inspired version. He followed it with a solo acoustic version of favorite “Small Town,” in which he got a bit playful, adding the quip “My wife was just 13 years old when I wrote this song in a small town” (he’s married to the much younger former Victoria’s Secret model Elaine Irwin).
 
The rest of his two-hour set brought much of his “John Cougar” rock and roll roots, getting fans on their feet for the hard-driving Farm Aid anthem “Rain on the Scarecrow” as well a hot “Paper and Fire,” and “The Real Life.” 
 
After performing the tour and album’s upbeat title cut “No Better Than This,” pink light bathed the stage for “Pink Houses,” quite possibly Mellencamp’s most popular song, the audience joining in for the chorus, singing "Ain’t that America, you and me." He closed the night with radio classic “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” taking a final bow as the house lights came immediately up.
 
Although there was no encore, Mellencamp had given 100 percent for his entire set – earning his legend status as one of the greatest American  songwriters and performers, whose music has stood the test of time and reemerged truly “no better than this.” | Amy Burger
 
Setlist:
Authority Song
No One Cares About Me
Deep Blue Heart
Death Letter
Walk Tall
The West End
Check It Out
Save Some Time To Dream (solo, acoustic)
Cherry Bomb (a capella)
Don’t Need This Body
Right Behind Me
Jackie Brown (solo, acoustic)
Longest Days
Easter Eve
Jack and Diane
Small Town (solo, acoustic)
New Hymn
Rain on the Scarecrow
Paper and Fire
The Real Life
Human Wheels
If I Die Sudden
No Better Than This*
Pink Houses
R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
 
 

 

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