Mellencamp looks back, sometimes with disinterest
By Joshua Klein, Special to the Tribune
John Mellencamp is resurgent. Not commercially, mind you – on that front his glory days are likely behind him. But for a guy who has spent years complaining about the foibles of fame, he finally seems to have gotten his wish and receded from the fickle pop realm. Free from the constraints of selling records, he's found a way of making records interesting again.
While Mellencamp and his band played a few hits at the Chicago Theatre Friday, the first show of a two night stand, he spent much of the set supporting his latest, "No Better Than This," an album recorded (with the producer T-Bone Burnett) with just a single microphone, in mono, with no overdubs and a devil-may-care attitude meant to recall the early days of folk, blues and rock and roll. Of course, it still sounded like Mellencamp Friday night, more or less (he was also fighting a cold), but the atmospheric material was met with only mild enthusiasm and mostly patience from a crowd clearly there to hear the familiar.
The new album's simple, even primitive conceit could have translated better than it did, had Mellencamp found a way to balance the retro cool of songs such as "Right Behind Me" and "The West End" with his cache of populist anthems. Instead, most of the new tracks, as well as several selections from 2008's somewhat likeminded "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," came off affected, even mannered, heightening the incongruity of Mellencamp's formalist detour compared to his meat and potatoes métier. The result felt like the obligatory "stripped down" breather sandwiched between the bombast and bluster at an arena show, but stretched out to full-show length.
To be fair, good ideas are no match for great songs, which Mellencamp demonstrated with an a capella rendition of "Cherry Bomb," his wistful classic that even as an unadorned sing-along drew the intermittently seated crowd back up to its feet. Similarly, a note-perfect new track like "Easter Eve" might have conjured the epic dread of a murder ballad, but "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Check It Out" and "Paper in Fire" carried with them an intrinsic gravitas that peak Mellencamp once summoned up on a regular basis.
For a guy whose current work draws so strongly on the distant past - the roots of his roots, as it were -- Mellencamp couldn't quite disguise his disinterest in revisiting his own past. While it was admirable that warhorses such as "Authority Song" and "Jack & Diane" were somewhat rearranged to suit his current tastes, their presence in the set felt like perfunctory (if proficient) sops to the folks who paid for more than Mellencamp's personal nostalgia trip.http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-live-1129-john-mellencamp-review-20101128,0,66542.story