Mellencamp daring and creative at Morris
By ANDREW S. HUGHES
Tribune Staff Writer
SOUTH BEND — The blues fit John Mellencamp well.
So do rockabilly, country and spirituals, the other three main ingredients for much of his concert Saturday at the Morris Performing Arts Center.
Mellencamp devoted more than two-thirds of the set list to new songs and reworked versions of older songs, usually in one or more of those four styles, before ending with a rock set that was mostly greatest hits but still managed to sneak in two recent songs with full-band arrangements.
It takes daring and creativity to do that, and Mellencamp and his band proved they have both — as well as the material to back it up.
Much of Saturday's set list came from Mellencamp's stellar new album, "No Better Than This," and his 2008 masterpiece, "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."
He recorded "No Better Than This" at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson once recorded. T Bone Burnett produced the album and used a 1955 mono recorder and a single, vintage RCA microphone to record it.
For this tour, Mellencamp's divided the show into three parts: small combo, solo acoustic (with occasional accompaniment) and full-band rock 'n' roll at the end.
A bare-bones version of "Authority Song" that came close to rockabilly in its sound opened the concert, performed by Mellencamp, guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic, bass player John Gunnell using an upright, and drummer Dane Clark, who stood to play a stripped-down drum set.
That led right into the rockabilly of "No One Cares About Me" from the new album and York's double-stop-filled solo and accompaniment that gave the song a jaunty feeling.
Early on, Mellencamp gave a powerful and mesmerizing performance of Son House's "Death Letter," which also featured a fine blues solo on mandolin by Wanchic and a tormented slide guitar solo by York.
"Deep Blue Heart" was a low, dark and gruff blues song that featured a Wanchic solo made up of long, fluid phrases that built to a series of snappy chord changes for its resolution.
"Don't Need This Body" featured ominous solos by York, his picking slow and his choice of notes almost dissonant, while York's banjo and Wanchic's mandolin gave the narrative "Easter Eve" both a mythic and whimsical tone.
Miriam Strum's subtle, long bowing and vibrato on "The West End" gave the song an ominous feel, while her use of vibrato on the lower register gave her fills a haunting quality on "Jackie Brown."
Mellencamp sounded bemused on "Right Behind Me," a song about the devil that borrows from the musical language of spirituals and featured a spare arrangement that Mellencamp's band played with swagger.
Among the song's Mellencamp rearranged, "Check It Out" had a slower tempo and none of its former anthem qualities. Instead, it became an introspective song. He performed "Cherry Bomb" a cappella and solo, his voice strong and nuanced while the audience clapped and sang along.
"Jack and Diane," however, received the most radical makeover, as a country two-step that was more interesting to hear as an alternative than as a replacement for the original. That's especially because the new version lacks the melodrama and import of its observations on life that are the hallmarks of the "American Fool" version.
The final third of the concert featured full-band versions of such hits as "Scarecrow," "What If I Came Knockin'?" and "Paper and Fire," with Gunnell on electric bass and Clark playing a full drum kit, as well as a powerful and dramatic version of "If I Die Sudden" from "Life, Death, Love and Freedom."
Throughout the concert, Mellencamp's voice sounded strong and resonant if a little gravely, which fits his new music well.
His delivery was consoling on "Longest Days," dramatic and nearly speak-sung on "Easter Eve," and proud and enthusiastic on a semi-solo acoustic "Small Town" (Strum and keyboardist Troye Kinnett on accordion joined him at the end and to duet afterward on "Old Rugged Cross").
And, known as a vibrant performer, Mellencamp danced during many of the instrumental breaks during the night, including with a woman from the front row during "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." He also told an amusing story about meeting the devil when he was 15 as the introduction to "Right Behind Me."
York, Wanchic and, often, keyboardist and accordion player Troye Kinnett repeatedly combined their voices for harmony on background vocals that added depth to the arrangements, as on "Walk Tall," "Don't Need This Body" and "Pink Houses."
First, however, Kurt Markus' "It's About You" film opened the show. Shot during Mellencamp's 2009 tour of minor league baseball stadiums with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, the film follows Mellencamp on the road and into the recording sessions for "No Better Than This."
Unfortunately, Markus' intentions seemed to be less about the recording sessions and more about making a visual essay about the state of the nation.
Markus' narration repeatedly makes the film about him and the journey he and his son, Ian, took to make the documentary.
His footage from First African Baptist Church, for example, contains no establishing shots to get a sense of how the musicians recorded the material, while his Sun Studios material does better at this, but at Gunter, Markus tells the audience about Mellencamp's entrance into Room 414 rather than show it.
Mellencamp, however, pulled off something rare and inspiring for a "classic rock" musician on Saturday: He brought new and interesting — exhilarating, actually — music to his audience and defiantly refused to be a greatest hits jukebox.
And that is the mark of an artist. http://www.southbendtribune.com/article/20101113/INTHEBEND/101119763/1130