Taking up an acoustic guitar for "Save Some Time to Dream," John Mellencamp stood alone onstage and told a story about his father, who regularly asks him if he's "having any fun." The roots-rock veteran did look like he was having fun last night at the Fox Theatre, punching all his marks while remaining heartfelt.
Grainy Super 8 footage rolled on a screen stage-front as the Saturday-night crowd hurried to their seats. The film, It's About You, is Mellencamp's opening act: It's a Kurt Markus-shot documentary about 2009's minor league ballpark tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and the recording of the album No Better Than This. It chronicles Mellencamp's pilgrimages to significant locations in American musical history: recording at the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Sun Studios in Memphis and Room 414 in the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, where blues pioneer Robert Johnson recorded for three days in 1936.
Sometimes these equivalents to touching holy relics - singing from the X where Elvis stood, actually getting baptized - seem silly, but the honesty of Mellencamp's mission comes through in footage of the recording sessions. To see the small band of session players huddled around a single 1940s-era microphone, to think that Better is the first mono-only release to make the top 10 since 1964, and to listen as steady, unobtrusive T-Bone Burnett cajoles profanity-firing Mellencamp into a take - well, that's pretty cool.
I wondered if showing footage of previous performances would dilute the power of that night's performance, but it was pointed out to me that this was the perfect way to familiarize the audience with the new songs they were about to hear live.
With the crowd primed (by the visual narrative) and ready (after a half-hour happy hour between film and music), Mellencamp and his band took the stage with "Authority Song." Emphasizing a country groove, the arrangements featured Mellencamp, crack guitarist Andy York and 35-year compadre Mike Wanchic all on electric, drummer Dane Clark on a stand-up cocktail kit and Jon E. Gee on upright bass. By the seventh song, "Check It Out," from 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, violinist Miriam Sturm and Troye Kinnett on accordion joined the set-up. Under the wistful, summer-day fiddle, Mellencamp, with cordless mic and snapping fingers, wandered the stage that evoked a town-square dance.
Mellencamp moved into the predominantly solo and acoustic set by taking off his jacket. He punctuated each song - from a cappella "Cherry Bomb" to strange boy-meets-devil fable "Right Behind Me" - with anecdotes, so that it lived up to the "evening with" billing. Before Reagan-era complaint "Jackie Brown," Mellencamp made the one political comment of the night saying, "How the hell do we always have money for bombs and not for food?" Next came the quietest moment of the show with "Longest Days," a simple lullaby of mortality underscored by a poignant, funny story about Mellencamp's beloved grandmother.