John Mellencamp’s gig at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium came complete with a gallery showing of his paintings and a screening of his new documentary, It’s About You. Call it a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man. Watching the film, shot on super 8 and chock full of great content (John getting baptized alongside his wife, traversing the small towns and dried up cities of America, and recording with T Bone Burnett in Robert Johnson’s hotel room and Sun Studios) was almost like eating dessert before dinner. Would the audience want to hear the same songs again, after hearing snippets of many of them in the film? The answer: of course.
The film touched on Mellencamp’s quest for artistic relevancy in an ever-changing musical climate, but there’s something the man formerly known as “Cougar” has that is undeniable. His voice, grainy and loaded with gravitas, remains as compelling and as affective as it was the day he recorded “Pink Houses” in 1983. It’s a voice that’s as distinctive as any of his arguably more famous peers, from Dylan to Springsteen to Petty, and like those artists, it’s attached to a man who has kept integrity high on his priority list.
Johnny Cash once referred to him as one of the ten best songwriters, and Mellencamp’s newer material didn’t disappoint in a live setting. A healthy portion of his two-hour set was culled from 2010’s No Better Than This , recorded in now-fashionable-again mono. Many of the songs were performed acoustically, alone or with a few adornments, and like the best folk songs, they had an instant impact. “I guess I’m playing a lot of guitar now,” quipped Mellencamp. “When I first started out, playing in bands, they used to unplug me because I was such a shitty guitar player.” A rousing cover of Son House’s “Death Letter” was largely performed Black Keys style, with just a slide guitar and drums.
Then there were the hits. There was an a capella, sing-a-long reading of “Cherry Bomb.” “Jack and Diane” was given an Americana makeover, with a new country backbeat and accordion, stand up bass, and fiddle. A solo acoustic “Small Town” went down easy, like a cold, refreshing beer after a long day’s work.
There were opportunities to rock out, as well. The “poet laureate of the interstate” strapped on an electric guitar for a scorching, full band version of “Rain On The Scarecrow,” and growled his way through “Paper and Fire” like a modern day Dylan. The highlight of the electric set might have been the crackling “If I Die Sudden,” from 2008’s Life, Death, Love And Freedom. If death is the ultimate authority, nobody can fight it and win. But you can wring some great material from it.
During “R.O.C.K. In The U.S.A.,” Mellencamp pulled a sexy older woman (don’t call her a cougar) in a white tank top onstage to join him in some mildly dirty dancing. “When we first started out, we were the worst band in the world,” he said, as his longtime family of musicians vamped behind him. “But tonight, I think you’ll have to admit we’re the best band in the world.”
(Photos: Ben Azevedo)