“If there’s a song you want to hear…” and then the 59-year-old rocker, his guns looking pretty buff and his graying shock of hair blessedly less pompadour and more tousled fop, paused just long enough for folks to start shouting out their favorites, “Be patient. But, guys, I didn’t come here to play all the old records…I told you all that before I came, and don’t act like I didn’t.”
But he did play a few of them interspersed throughout the nearly sold-out show to promote last year’s “No Better Than This,” the latest effort in Mellencamp’s 35-year journey away from angry, half-shouted anthems to contemplative, lyrically tight rockabilly and bluesy-folk tunes.
Instead of an opener, the theater screened the T Bone Burnett-produced documentary “It’s About You,” by filmmaker and still photographer Kurt Markus. The Super 8-shot movie shows Mellencamp’s six-week 2009 summer tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, and it’s an odd choice, to show a taped concert before a live concert. The crowd got restless.
It was a relief, then, to be treated to a rousing throwback when “Authority Song” from the 1983 release “uh-HUH!” opened the set. From there, though, Mellencamp and his band spent the first third of the show thoroughly enjoying themselves as they ran through a big chunk of the also-Burnett-produced “No Better Than This,” along with a few other more recent releases.
And that was fine, because not only was the band –- including longtime Mellencamp bandmates Andy York and Mike Wanchic on guitar, as well as drummer Dane Clark and upright bass player John Gunnell –- crisp and enthusiastic, they had the added benefit of Miriam Sturm on violin and Troye Kinnett on accordion/keyboards. The effect was a well-orchestrated, multi-layered sound, with the set alternating between electric and acoustic, and if occasionally it drifted into country-fried or soft-peddled versions, well, that was OK, too. And the violin-accordion take on the requisite “drum solo,” doing a haunting “New Hymn” to give the rest of the band a break, was delightful.
The Johnny Cash-like newer material fits Mellencamp’s gravelly, age-worn voice well, as well, and it was in fine form Wednesday night, ably transitioning from the sage crooners to the spirited fan favorites. From the new release, the wistful “Save Some Time to Dream” seemed to stir the crowd the most, while “No One Cares About Me” and “The West End” showcased the band’s ability to blend the instruments with the singer’s strong vocals to the best effect. “Longest Days,” one of Mellencamp’s most insightful tunes and one of the true keepers from 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom,” with just Mellencamp and Sturm and a few drunk catcallers, was undeniably sweet.
Mellencamp clearly works hard at making the old hits more palatable to himself, and sometimes it works. For instance, “Rain on the Scarecrow” was an edgier take than usual, almost Goth-like in its execution, and the band turned “Jack and Diane,” -– “Do you remember these two people?” he asked -– into a foot-stomping hoedown of sorts. And after telling a long tale about a guy named “Jerry” that he had run into while wandering around Denver earlier in the day and promised him “Cherry Bomb,” he delivered the song a cappella, with the crowd singing along. Funny, but in Ottawa in February, he told that crowd it had been requested by someone he ran into while skating on Rideau Canal earlier in the day.
Hey, I guess whatever it takes to choke out those oldies, John (hey, I remember once hearing him do it as a hip-hop tune several tours ago, and I think I recall his jokingly doing “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” as a scat version one year).
Mellencamp endeared himself to the crowd, however, by telling such amusing and self-deprecating anecdotes about his late, 100-year-old grandmother and his formerly “dangerous” self that it was hard not to get it that he gets it.
More redemption: The final two songs, “Pink Houses,” making good on an earlier promise to the crowd there, and a kick-butt, no-holds-barred “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” during which he pulled up a somewhat terrified woman who rose to the occasion by dancing and then attempting to belt out a few lyrics with him.
Maybe not dangerous anymore. But still rockin’.
Kyle Wagner is a regular contributor to Reverb and travel editor at The Denver Post.
Daniel Petty is a Denver-based photographer and social media editor at The Denver Post.