Taking up an acoustic guitar for "Save Some Time to Dream," John Mellencamp stood alone onstage and told a story about his father, who regularly asks him if he's "having any fun." The roots-rock veteran did look like he was having fun last night at the Fox Theatre, punching all his marks while remaining heartfelt.
Grainy Super 8 footage rolled on a screen stage-front as the Saturday-night crowd hurried to their seats. The film, It's About You, is Mellencamp's opening act: It's a Kurt Markus-shot documentary about 2009's minor league ballpark tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and the recording of the album No Better Than This. It chronicles Mellencamp's pilgrimages to significant locations in American musical history: recording at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis and Room 414 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded for three days in 1936.
Sometimes these equivalents to touching holy relics - singing from the X where Elvis stood, actually getting baptized - seem silly, but the honesty of Mellencamp's mission comes through in footage of the recording sessions. To see the small band of session players huddled around a single 1940s-era microphone, to think that Better is the first mono-only release to make the top 10 since 1964, and to listen as steady, unobtrusive T-Bone Burnett cajoles profanity-firing Mellencamp into a take - well, that's pretty cool.
I wondered if showing footage of previous performances would dilute the power of that night's performance, but it was pointed out to me that this was the perfect way to familiarize the audience with the new songs they were about to hear live.
With the crowd primed (by the visual narrative) and ready (after a half-hour happy hour between film and music), Mellencamp and his band took the stage with "Authority Song." Emphasizing a country groove, the arrangements featured Mellencamp, crack guitarist Andy York and 35-year compadre Mike Wanchic all on electric, drummer Dane Clark on a stand-up cocktail kit and Jon E. Gee on upright bass. By the seventh song, "Check It Out," from 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, violinist Miriam Sturm and Troye Kinnett on accordion joined the set-up. Under the wistful, summer-day fiddle, Mellencamp, with cordless mic and snapping fingers, wandered the stage that evoked a town-square dance.
Mellencamp moved into the predominantly solo and acoustic set by taking off his jacket. He punctuated each song - from a cappella "Cherry Bomb" to strange boy-meets-devil fable "Right Behind Me" - with anecdotes, so that it lived up to the "evening with" billing. Before Reagan-era complaint "Jackie Brown," Mellencamp made the one political comment of the night saying, "How the hell do we always have money for bombs and not for food?" Next came the quietest moment of the show with "Longest Days," a simple lullaby of mortality underscored by a poignant, funny story about Mellencamp's beloved grandmother.
The band rejuvenated "Jack and Diane" with an upbeat time signature and island swing, but Mellencamp's emphatic, howling vocals haven't changed a bit. Following with solo, acoustic "Small Town," a call from the crowd broke the singer's concentration - as he had to pause and start over, chuckling, "Yeah, you fucked me up. How many times you think I sang this song?"
Ninety minutes into the show, Mellencamp left the stage briefly a single time - only to reemerge with the fully electric band and a raging "Rain on the Scarecrow." What followed was a bang-up sequence of late-'80s/early-'90s hits - "Paper in Fire," "The Real Life" and "Human Wheels." This was Mellencamp's patent sound - the big chorus, Appalachian fiddle, larger-than-life drums and backup chorus as meaty as his own voice - and it carried all the way through show-closing "Pink Houses" and "R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A." As confident and mature as the whole performance had been, Mellencamp looked most at home here - fronting a band on fire with heartland rock 'n' roll.
Critic's Notebook: I sat next to my mother at this show, who as a young student at Indiana University in the '70s, saw "Johnny Cougar" perform at tiny barroom venues in Bloomington. She remembers that he was panned locally.
This was a rowdy middle-aged crowd. If Mellencamp ever does run for that soon-vacated Indiana Senate seat, the campaign slogan "Cougars for Cougar" just might take him all the way.
Setlist: 1. Authority Song 2. Nobody Cares About Me 3. Deep Blue Heart 4. Death Letter 5. Walk Tall 6. The West End 7. Check It Out 8. Save Some Time to Dream 9. Cherry Bomb 10. Don't Need This Body 11. Right Behind Me 12. Jackie Brown 13. Longest Days 14. Easter Eve 15. Jack and Diane 16. Small Town 17. New Hymn 18. Rain on the Scarecrow 19. Paper in Fire 20. The Real Life 21. Human Wheels 22. If I Die Sudden 23. No Better Than This 24. Pink Houses 25. R.O.C.K. In the U.S.A.