The last time John Mellencamp played Radio City Music Hall, he was still John Cougar. It was also his first headlining show in New York, following his pop chart breakthrough in 1982 with “Hurts So Good.”
He and his then band came out in tuxes and blasted their way through a good half-hour of choice 1960s cover songs, including an unforgettably pretty “Pretty Ballerina.” Then the tuxes came off and he did a set of his own then-small song catalog.
We learned later, of course, that he never really wanted to be a “Pop Singer.” In Saturday night’s show at Radio City (the second of two nights) he was way more than a pop star, as he’s been ever since Scarecrow came out 25 years ago and defined the ensuing Americana roots-music category–more so with the release last year of No Better Than This. The acclaimed latter disc is an acoustic blues-styled album fashioned after the vintage recording processes and procedures employed by the likes of Robert Johnson (indeed, it was partly recorded in Room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where Johnson had recorded in 1936).
When Mellencamp and band emerged after a screening of photographer Kurt Markus’s It’s About You documentary of the No Better Than This production, it was in the mostly acoustic format of the album, beginning with an abbreviated version of “Authority Song” and following with “No One Cares About Me,” the first of six songs from No Better Than This. Four others came from the preceding album Life Death Love And Freedom, which also had a folk blues flavor, so he was clearly focusing on new material over big hits.
Mellencamp was also staying in a stripped-down band configuration. Fiddler Miriam Sturm and keyboardist/accordionist Troye Kinnett didn’t even join guitarists Andy York and Mike Wanchic and bassist John Gunnell and drummer Dane Clark until “Walk Tall,” the fifth song in. Gunnell was playing upright bass, Clark was off to the side with a basic drum set, and Kinnett was playing an upright piano–but even in the folk/acoustic presentation, the band, rightly anointed by the bandleader as “the greatest rock band in world” toward the end of the 25-song, 140-minute set, was stunning.
Then again, Mellencamp has had if not the best, one of a handful of them since his last time at Radio City. The only criticism last night was in his pacing: Like many veteran singer-songwriters, he takes a solo acoustic guitar turn–but when you have such great players behind you, why dismiss them for any reason? Here he sent them out, brought them back, sent them out again, brought one, than two. It was all fine, but messed up the straight-ahead momentum that Mellencamp concerts are known for.
But after his solo version of Scarecrow’s hit “Small Town,” Kinnett and Sturm came out to play an instrumental hymn (ending with the melody from Scarecrow’s “Minutes To Memories”), after which the rest of the band came out and exploded into that album’s “Rain On The Scarecrow,” now fully electric and with Clark behind a full drum set in the middle. They all slammed through seven more songs including “The Real Life” (also from Scarecrow), “Paper In Fire,” “No Better Than This” and “Pink Houses.”
There would be no “Hurts So Good,” but when he ended with “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.” (also from Scarecrow), the populist pop non-star brought up a gal from the front row to dance with and warble the last verse. He often does it, and it always works.
(The Examiner is the author of John Mellencamp–The Concert At Walter Reed.)
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