Tuesday, April 12, 2011

John Mellencamp concert review

A version of my review originally appeared in the Orange County Register and can be viewed at

Authenticity was the primary goal in making “No Better Than This,” John Mellencamp's current, timeless sounding album done entirely in mono (the first non-stereo release in 46 years to make the top 10 on the Billboard 200 chart). While listening to the blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll tunes, you could easily think it was recorded in the 1950s.

Like 2008’s equally impressive “Life Death Love and Freedom,” it was produced by T Bone Burnett. Mellencamp, his musicians and crew, laid down the tracks at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., 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 Nokia Theatre stage on Friday alongside an electric band to Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” He kicked off the 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 searing Son House songDeath Letter” (extended and accented here with mandolin, accordion and violin) and “John Cockers” added heft.

Performing in front of a beautiful city painting backdrop including a poster for 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,” off the 2004 greatest hits collection "Words & Music," had a fresh countrified vibe.

Perhaps referring to our inept lawmakers who can’t balance budgets efficiently, Mellencamp said a harrowing “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 man roared the words.

Another welcome changeup came via the slow, simmering intro to “Check it Out,” where the Nokia crowd (the balcony was closed, but the floor looked filled) was up and dancing while Mellencamp worked both sides of the stage.

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

Burnett, who was sitting with ex-KCRW DJ Chris Douridas (I also spotted Ben Harper nearby), went onstage and provided electric guitar on the haunting “Don’t Need This Body.”

Mellencamp did a spiritual rap about the devil before the feisty “Right Behind Me.” Then he 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 violin 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 standup 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, reworked “Paper in Fire” contained a reverb effect 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.

John Mellencamp, Nokia Theatre/LA Live, 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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