At Massey Hall in Toronto on Wednesday
Johnny Cougar, we hardly knew you. The 59-year-old John Mellencamp is in reinvention mode, presenting himself on a warmly lit stage for the first of two Massey Hall concerts as a new sort of Johnny Cash as he sang with gravel-voiced authority on mortality, humanity and dreams. There was a little night dancin' too.
In his well-practised populist drawl, he said that long ago he had thought himself as a "dangerous young man," but that now he was a well-travelled and formidable old one. He sang sombre new folk-based material convincingly and reworked his radio hits in colourful ways, alternating his onstage lineup seamlessly on the fly, from a Tennessee beat combo to a solo acoustic troubadour to a southern ensemble with accordion and electric fiddle - and, finally, a full-on rockin'-in-the-USA electric unit.
The show was prefaced with the thoughtful tour documentary It's About You, the "you" being not just Mellencamp. At his best - and he was there on Wednesday - the Indiana native sings to, for and about all of us. On Don't Need This Body, he offered gruffly that "This getting old ain't for cowards." Mellencamp isn't one of those, a coward; he throws cherry bombs at authority, lives fully, moves forward and makes dignified music.
It's About You
No popcorn was served, but the "opening act" was a grainy Super-8 travelogue that followed Mellencamp's 2009 tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. In the film by Kurt Markus, we saw the silver Streamline camper Mellencamp uses as a dressing room; that same vintage trailer was parked outside Massey. Also covered was the making of Mellencamp's latest album, No Better Than This, an unflinching collection of original folk-blues recorded in historic locations in the U.S. South. The film also hit at the tumbled-wall decline of the United States. Markus, as narrator, talked about seeking discovery, and not being sure if the ones he found were outside of himself or from within.
Death becomes him
The show proper began with the lights down and the taped introductory music of Cash's God's Gonna Cut You Down, concerning inevitability. Authority Song, done in a rockabilly style, came first. The old anthem about a defiant youth - "growing up leads to growing old and then to dying" - gave way to the boom-chicka-boomed No One Cares About Me, a crotchety sing-along with a man who has "angels around the bend." Then the judgment-day delta blues of Death Letter, followed by John Cockers (raging Americana rock about an angry, old fellow with plans to dig himself a six-foot hole). Mellencamp, with grey stubble on his chin, thinks about dying.
Check It Out was rendered in a sweet Acadian style, with Mellencamp delivering a semi-sermon on the fallacies of our daily lives and what we think we've learned. Before a spot-lit Save Some Time to Dream, he addressed the matter of song requests: "Just be patient, it'll probably show up sooner or later." To which a voice in the dark cried out, "We got all night." But do we? Later we heard If I Die Sudden, the resigned No Better Than This and a song about life being short even in its longest days. So, no, we don't have all night. But we did have one night, some night.
John Mellencamp plays Vancouver, April 13; Edmonton, April 15 and 16; Saskatoon, April 19; Regina, April 22 and 23; Winnipeg, April 25.