Finishing up the current leg of a tour of smaller venues, rock legend John Mellencamp made a stop at Merrill Auditorium Wednesday night for a nearly sold-out show. The intimacy of the setting added a more personal feel while taking little away from the power of his music.
The Indiana native’s voice has become a bit gruffer over the years and that gave his tough and somber new material an edge.
Backed by his six-member, black-clad band, the 64-year-old singer started things off with a pair of songs from “Plain Spoken,” his most recent album. “Lawless Times” told a wary tale of a world where trust is uncertain, even in yourself, and you have to “… keep your eyes open on everybody else.”
“Jack and Diane,” the lovers of his early hit, were revisited in a stirring solo acoustic performance, despite the singer saying he primarily sang the song now because fans expect it.
The capacity crowd indeed seemed to enjoy the more familiar lyrical places revisited during the show. “Small Town” and “Pink Houses” engendered full-voiced singalongs. A later barrage of oldies featured a thunderous “Rain on the Scarecrow” and an intense “Paper in Fire.” The walls of Merrill Auditorium did not come “Crumblin’ Down” but some of the crowd’s inhibitions seemed to as they swayed and shook to the beat.
The solid punch of his band, including longtime members Mike Wanchic on guitar and Miriam Sturm on violin, lifted many of the lesser known vintage songs. Rocking versions of “Minutes to Memories” and “Human Wheels” reminded all that the singer has a deep catalog of fine tunes to draw upon. His cabaret-style take on “The Full Catastrophe,” where he growled the lyrics like the recent Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, suggested other genres to explore.
A slide guitar blues and some quiet acoustic moments, set up by a story about the singer’s grandmother and added more variety as did the violin and accordion backing on “Check It Out.” The latter instrumental combo was given center stage as Sturm faced off against Troye Kinnett for an impressive “Overture” to the second half of the concert.
Carlene Carter opened the evening with a solo set, alternately accompanying herself on guitar and piano. Numbers made famous by her grandmother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family, such as “Wildwood Flower” and “Little Black Train,” figured prominently while her own soulful “Change” proved the 60-year-old singer still adds to the tradition.
Mellencamp later brought Carter on stage with him for a couple of numbers. Their spirited, and spiritually minded, duets enhanced the prospect of a forthcoming album by the pair and perhaps suggested new horizons for the headliner.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.