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Author Topic: Orange County Register Review  (Read 6198 times)
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« on: April 10, 2011, 12:42:25 pm »

Outside the Nokia Theatre box office Friday night, one woman waiting to get inside was surprised and disappointed after being informed that John Mellencamp’s concert would be preceded by a movie. Yet the hour-long cut of It’s About You, a compelling, unusual Mellencamp documentary currently making the festival rounds, was hardly a letdown.

Narrated by acclaimed photographer/first-time film director Kurt Markus -- who has helmed music videos for Mellencamp, Tori Amos and Jewel -- it follows the veteran performer across America during his 2009 summer tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and in the process of recording his excellent album No Better Than This.

A low budget, fly-on-the-wall project shot on old-school Super 8 stock, the doc’s grainy images include concert and rehearsal footage (few songs are complete, many utilize odd angles) and glimpses of various towns in disrepair. Most people at Nokia talked right through it, though regular Mellencamp followers like myself were very interested; some clapped and hollered as the live segments played.

Authenticity was the primary goal in making No Better Than This, a timeless-sounding effort done entirely in mono (it's the first non-stereo release in 46 years to make the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart). While listening to its blues, country and rock ’n’ roll tunes, you could easily think it was recorded in the ’50s.

With T Bone Burnett producing (as he did for 2008's equally impressive Life Death Love and Freedom), Mellencamp along with his musicians and crew laid down tracks at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., as well as legendary Sun Studio in Memphis and Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where esteemed blues man Robert Johnson once rolled tape. They even utilized vintage equipment. The lyrics are at times, bleak, optimistic and best appreciated by those who have, as they say, “lived a little.”

In Los Angeles, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer took the stage alongside an electric band to the strains of Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” He kicked off his 95-minute set with a revamped “Authority Song,” now boasting a smoldering rock groove, plus call-and-response action at the end. The singer’s voice had a grittier than usual timbre, giving the searing Son House song “Death Letter” (extended and accented here with mandolin, accordion and violin) and “John Cockers” added heft.

Performing in front of a beautiful city-painting backdrop that included a poster for the 1963 Paul Newman western Hud (also the name of Mellencamp’s son), the six-piece group came and went as needed and played with finesse. “Walk Tall,” a song that debuted on the 2004 greatest hits collection Words & Music, had a fresh countrified vibe. Perhaps referring to inept lawmakers who can’t balance budgets efficiently, Mellencamp said a harrowing version of “The West End” was about “what happens when the government doesn’t take care of people.” Longtime violinist Miriam Sturm gave a spirited delivery as her boss roared the words.

Another welcome change-up came via the slow, simmering intro to “Check It Out,” during which the Nokia crowd was up and dancing while Mellencamp worked both sides of the stage. (The balcony was closed this night but the floor looked filled.)

“My Dad said you gotta do fun things for yourself,” he noted before the hopeful “Save Some Time to Dream,” performed solo acoustic. He joked around a bit before singing most of “Cherry Bomb” a capella, accompanied loudly by fans’ voices.

Burnett, seated with former KCRW DJ Chris Douridas (I also spotted Ben Harper nearby), went onstage and provided electric guitar for the haunting “Don’t Need This Body.” Mellencamp did a spiritual rap about the devil before the feisty “Right Behind Me,” then quoted the U.S. constitution and criticized defense spending over the welfare of Americans in the lead-up to a plaintive “Jackie Brown,” where Sturm added weepy strains. The singer also recounted a story about his late grandmother and prayer on the endearing mortality tale “Longest Days.”

The atmosphere inside really sparked up after drummer Dane Clark moved from a cocktail kit to full setup and bassist John Gunnell switched from stand-up to a standard model on a suddenly twangy “Jack & Diane.” Unfortunately, the remainder of the set was hampered by a muddy mix. Mellencamp humorously ad-libbed a lyric about his multiple marriages during “Small Town.” A fine reworking of “Paper in Fire” contained a reverbed guitar sound that recalled CCR’s “Suzie Q.”

Each time band mainstays Andy York and Mike Wanchic would take a solo turn, Mellencamp looked proud; even more so for Sturm. Troye Kinnett’s supple organ led the charge on the stomping “If I Die Sudden” -- definitely more fiery live -- and Mellencamp sang the soulful vocals while hunched over fans in front of the stage. He invited a lady up to dance and sing on “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” capping the inspired show on a boisterous note. (There was no encore.)

Setlist: John Mellencamp, Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles, April 8, 2011

Authority Song / No One Cares About Me / Death Letter / John Cockers / Walk Tall / The West End / Check It Out / Save Some Time for Dreams / Cherry Bomb / Don’t Need This Body / Right Behind Me / Jackie Brown / Longest Days / Jack & Diane / Small Town / Rain on the Scarecrow / Paper in Fire / The Real Life / What If I Came Knocking / If I Die Sudden / No Better Than This / Pink Houses / R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
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