By Bo Emerson firstname.lastname@example.org
John Mellencamp pulled his Airstream trailor behind the Fox Theatre Sunday and delivered a solid evening of Hoosier rock and roll to an appreciative, almost-sold-out crowd.
Looking fit and pumped, Mellencamp started with a croaky voice that grew stronger through the evening, and by the end of the night he was shouting out the high notes with ease.
Themes of youth and age have been in Mellencamp’s songs since he had three names. This year he turns 60 (plenty of his audience members Sunday looked like they’d already crossed that threshold) and seems to be staring at mortality more often. “With all the cigarettes I’ve smoked I guess I have another 18 years,” he said.
Mellencamp spoke about making fun of old-timers when he was younger: “I thought I was a dangerous young man, but I really was a smart-ass.”
Now he said his attitude toward age has changed.
“Take a look to your left and a look to your right. If you see a guy with gray hair he’s probably a dangerous old man.”
Mellencamp paced the show with theatrical flair, backing off the tension for low-key songs on acoustic instruments (such as his lilting duet with violinist Miriam Sturm on “Jackie Brown,”) and then bringing the full band back for the floor-stomping numbers like the show opener “Authority Song.”
“I might be the worst guitar player in the world,” he said after a solo acoustic version of “Small Town.” Of course, he’s a fine three-chord basher. But his songs demonstrate that great music doesn’t need complex harmony.
“He’s a storyteller,” said Bill Fowler of Suwanee, putting Mellencamp in the same league as Bruce Springsteen. “He’s iconic.”
In the most powerful moment of contrast, a delicate instrumental moment between Sturm on violin and Troye Kinnett on accordion was followed by a red-lit “Rain on the Scarecrow,” with Dane Clark switching from cocktail drums to a full set and John Gunnell moving from acoustic to chest-shaking electric bass. (Guitarists Andy Yorke and Michael Wanchic rounded out the ensemble.)
The concert was preceded with the screening of a documentary about the making of Mellencamp’s latest album, “No Better Than This,” which was recorded in historic locations on a vintage portable Ampex. Mellencamp and his band traveled to Sun Studio in Memphis, the First African Baptist Church in Savannah and the San Antonio hotel room where blues singer Robert Johnson recorded “Crossroad Blues.”
Also on display at the Fox were paintings from Mellencamp’s second career as a visual artist, though they were not well lit nor explained.
Mellencamp played without a break for more than two hours, sprinkling even his most well-worn radio hits, including “Pink Houses” and a reggaed-up version of “Jack and Diane”with his newer material. The audience was grateful, and stayed on its feet through the finale.