November 27, 2010
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
Black Friday does not just describe consumption-crazy shoppers on State State the day after Thanksgiving. Inside the Chicago Theatre, it was a realistic assessment of John Mellencamp’s two-hour set of weary folk ballads, death-obsessed blues and the catalog hits he reconfigured to match both.
Mellencamp spent the first chapter of his career as an ambitious hitmaker and the second chapter running from them to embrace muted folk and country arrangements about marginalized characters slugging it out along the nation’s blue highways.
His third chapter uses that template and strips the instrumentation down even further, some even to the pre-electric era. “No Better Than This” (Rounder) his new album, is so strict about authenticity, it was recorded in mono. The live show did not add much color past that.
No doubt most in the audience were confused about, and sometimes indifferent to, new songs that operated with slower tempos and vocals that were more scowled than sung. Mellencamp had the undesirable job of challenging an audience that didn’t like budging.
Their loss. Mellencamp’s musicians were given license to work outside the margins, creating atmosphere and counter rhythms that gave the songs lasting depth.
“Death Letter Blues,” a Son House cover, snaked courtesy of just a snare drum, a shaker and a slide guitar. On “Don’t Need This Body,” guitarist Mike Wanchic delivered ghostly inflections on his guitar while the rest of the band kept time to handclaps, the total effect being getting lost on a highway at night and trying to find the road.
Mellencamp stuck to mostly an acoustic guitar, either playing solo or within different configurations of his band. “Easter Eve,” an Irish-tinged waltz, allowed the full band to intersperse folk instrumentation while “Jackie Brown” was presented as a duo between Mellencamp and fiddler Miriam Sturm.
The songs that were plucked from the past were forced to fit the more versatile setting. With Jon Gunnell’s acoustic bass slapping away and Wanchic’s guitar in spongy reverb, “Authority Song” was stripped to sound as if Buddy Holly had just left the room. “Jack and Diane” was now a full-blown country stomp, recognizable only by the lyrics and “Cherry Bomb” was a drive-by visit, sung a cappella with the audience doing most of the heavy lifting.
Mellencamp dedicated the final half hour to a rotation of past hits; in fact it was the first time drummer Dane Clark even sat behind a proper drum kit. But the familiarity of that section did not seem to fit where Mellencamp is today. His torched vocals sound more suited to the mortality tales that fill his recent albums.
Surprisingly, some of those songs helped re-focus the past. “Check It Out” is one of those songs that is automatic sing-along but given the treatment — it was paired with “Save Some Time To Dream,” a solo acoustic new song that stared into the darkness for hope — the song was unmasked to reveal lyrics that mourned the status quo.
Aggressive rock versions of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Paper in Fire” took the opposite route; the songs never sounded angrier. Wanchic’s guitar bled minor chords while Mellencamp almost chanted lyrics that remain relevant more than 20 years later. They delivered the hits the audience was waiting for, but maybe not what they expected.