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Concert Reviews:
John Mellencamp sets off a Cherry Bomb at the Detroit Opra House
 

By GARY GRAFF
Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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DETROIT -- Putting John Mellencamp in an opera house seems like the proverbial bull in the china shop scenario.

The dude refers to himself as the Little Bastard, after all. And the hard-hitting heartland rock on which he's staked his reputation is more punky than Puccini, more R.O.C.K. (in the U.S.A.) than "Rigoletto." Somewhere Giuseppe Verdie may be rolling in his grave.

But Mellencamp's early two-hour show on Wednesday night, June 10, proved well-suited for the Detroit Opera House. His songs, and performance, still have plenty of bite, but the Indiana singer and songwriter has mellowed just enough and, more importantly, expanded his musical reach to comfortably fit such intimate confines. He still stirred 'em up on Wednesday, especially with anthemic hits such as "Small Town," "Paper In Fire," "Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song," "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bomb," but there was an age-appropriate gravitas and deliberate arc to the encoreless 21-song show that made it more vital than just another rock 'n' roll showdown.

What Mellencamp chose to leave out was particularly telling. There was no "Hurts So Good" or, for that matter, "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." He stuck to the weighty side of his canon; even the aforementioned pop smashes as well as the likes of a solo acoustic "Jack and Diane" and "Check it Out" were fortified with serious underpinnings, whether social commentary or introspection. And the show was in many ways defined by the rootsier and bluesier material from recent albums such as "Plain Spoken" and "Life, Death, Love and Freedom," including the pensive "Troubled Man" and "Lawless Times," a cover of Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" -- which featured Mellencamp's most animated dance moves of the night -- and Dylanesque fare such as "The Isolation of Mister" and "Longest Days."

He also scored with a pair of songs -- "Away From This World" and the stomping "Tear This Cabin Down" -- from "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," the musical he wrote with Stephen King, on which Mellencamp was assisted by opening act Carlene Carter, who was part of the production's touring company last fall.

Mellencamp's facile band, decked out in formal wear for the evening, proved up to the task of covering the set's broad stylistic and emotional range, adding new introductions to some of the songs -- such as the heavier start of "Small Town" and elevating the arrangements with solos from guitarist Andy York and violinist Miriam Sturm. Strum, with keyboardist Troye Kinnett on accordion, also played a curious late show "Overture," lacing together snippets of various Mellencamp hits before the group returned en masse for a pulverizing "Rain on the Scarecrow."

Mellencamp offered warm memories of playing early career shows at the Center Stage in Canton and also ruminated on mortality, aging and sentimentality. "The only critic without an agenda is time," he noted at one point, and Wednesday's concert showed that time has indeed been good for both Mellencamp and his music.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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