DETROIT -- About a third of the way into his concert Friday night (Nov. 19) at the Fox Theatre, John Mellencamp informed the crowd that, "This ain't no rock show anymore. This is a vaudeville thing. Me standing up here playing those hit songs is over."
Those would be fighting words from some artists. But for Mellencamp it was par for the course, part of four decades of refining and reinventing himself -- and still leaving 'em R.O.C.K.ing in the U.S.A. by the end of the night.
Friday's 25-song, just over two-hour show offered the Indiana troubadour's latest permutation, promoting his rootsy latest album "No Better Than This" alongside highlights and choice deep cuts from his catalog in a variety of contexts and ensemble variations of his crack six-piece band. Two-thirds of the night was stripped-down in some fashion, from the rowdy, semi-unplugged kickoff of "The Authority Song" to the twangy rockabilly of "No One Cares About Me," the folky soul of "Deep Blue Heart" and earnest grit of "Death Letter," "West End" and "Don't Need This Body."
Mellencamp took a solo turn on "Save Some Time to Dream" and received late-song accompaniment on songs such as "Jackie Brown" and "Small Town," while "Jack and Diane" was rendered as a country shuffle and "Cherry Bomb" was delegated to an a capella first verse and chorus singalong. He also threw down a gauntlet to any youths in the audience while segueing into "Don't Need This Body" and delivered a humorous rap about a supposed encounter with the devil when he was 15 at the start of "Right Behind Me."
The last 40 minutes, however, rewarded the fans with exactly what they wanted -- a set of charged electric rockers starting with a pounding "Rain on the Scarecrow" and a twisted arrangement of "Paper in Fire" before rolling through "The Real Life," "What If I Came Knocking," "If I Die Sudden" and a rave-up rendition of "No Better Than This' " title track. The anthems "Pink Houses" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." finished the night on a high note, showing that Mellencamp wasn't necessarily "over" playing the hit songs -- as long as he could indulge in his own creative whims first.
The evening began not with an opening act but with a movie, a 75-minute documentary by Kurt Marcus about Mellencamp's 2009 tour and the recording of "No Better Than This" at three historic locations in the U.S. It was modest but entertaining, propelled by Marcus' gentle narration, but the film too often got lost in the hubub of the arriving crowd -- so here's hoping for the inevitable DVD release at some point.
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