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« on: March 31, 2015, 01:08:09 pm »

Mellencamp is gritty, still cool
By Rashid Ollison

John Mellencamp is still cool.

That leather-tough Midwestern swagger that made him a superstar of heartland rock back in the ’80s, it’s still there. But at 63 – grayer, thicker around the middle, with noticable, though attractive, grit on the vocal chords – Mellencamp begrudgingly accepts being sentimental, something that usually comes with age.

During his nearly sold-out show at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk on Sunday night, he vacillated between the charming, sentimental guy and the rebellious, devil-may-care Mellencamp that sold millions of albums 30 years ago. But neither side was incongruous with the other, given that his music, even the most vinegary lyric, has always carried an idealistic vision of American life. Mellencamp sang of death and scarecrows, of wise grandmothers and dashed dreams, all with a well-manipulated mix of bluesy conviction and rock-star panache.

The artist and his tight, energetic six-piece band married formality with raucousness. They were all dressed in vintage tuxes, including Mellencamp who later got rid of the jacket, sporting a T-shirt under his vest. The lone female member, a violinist, was barefoot in a black lace gown.

They opened with “Lawless Times,” a rockabilly shuffle from Mellencamp’s latest album, “Plain Spoken,” a song with Bob Dylan’s prints all over it.

The lyrics are unabashedly pessimistic and snarky:

“You can’t trust the priest/You’d better watch your behind/Don’t look too close at the government/Hard tellin’ what you’ll find.”

“Plain Spoken” is an apt title not only for his new album but the way the singer-songwriter approaches lyrics these days, staying well within the limits of his frayed voice. There was no snarl in Mellencamp’s voice, something a less-experienced singer would have to affect to get such embittered lyrics across.

But Mellencamp can still summon some power and bombast when he wants to, especially when performing the hits of yesterday. On “Small Town,” a nostalgic smash for Mellencamp when he was 34-years-old, the singer imbued the lyric with more bite than he did three decades ago.

The quiet rage at good times long gone simmered during “The Isolation of Mister,” a cut from his latest album that Mellencamp couldn’t have sung during his rock heyday, when he often poetically chronicled the hopes and disillusions of baby boomers in middle America.

Those songs, most of them vivid and solidly written, still hold up. “Jack and Diane,” one of Mellencamp’s best tunes, was given an unplugged treatment, as the rocker sang with just an acoustic guitar and invited the house to join him on the chorus.

Perhaps the most affected moment of the nearly two-hour show, where Mellencamp completely indulged his sentimental side, came during an all-acoustic performance of “Longest Days,” a somber ballad about the shortness of life.

But the rollicking energy soon returned as he reached back to the songs that cemented his legend. “Crumbling Down,” an MTV staple in 1983, sounded just as gloriously rowdy as it did back in the Reagan era. The ’60s soul undercurrent of “Authority Song” was more pronounced as Mellencamp folded in an interpolation of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances.”

“I hate to admit it,” Mellencamp said with a smirk, “but I’m that old guy who talks about old times.”

Then he launched into “Pink Houses” followed by “Cherry Bomb,” two songs vibrant with sentimental images of the past. Mellencamp sang them with a mix of steely swagger and regretful longing.

And, of course, the sense of cool this veteran rocker hasn’t lost.
« Last Edit: March 31, 2015, 01:12:25 pm by walktall2010 » Logged
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