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Mellencamp overcomes conundrum

Wang Center, Boston, April 15, 2015

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

John Mellencamp faces the predicament that artists of his stature must face as they age. Now 63 and still putting out new, quality albums, Mellencamp presumably wants to push his new highly relevant music, while the faithful, long-time supporters thrive on the old stuff.

How do you rectify the two? Mellencamp tended to have it both ways before a show that percolated before reaching its climax.

Mellencamp started off with the very fine, musically muscular "Lawless Times" from "Plain Spoken." This is a continuing Mellencamp's political commentary, which tends to go liberal. "Lawless Times" is more of a (cynical?) call to be wary of just about everything from Wall Street to police to banks with the advice "learn the rules hard and fast/Take care of yourself/And keep your eyes open/On everybody else."

It used to be that Mellencamp played the rebel type ("Authority Song," which induced a crowd sing-along with a good reading by Mellencamp and band), but he's channeled his fight to decrying the ills of society.

Now, he's singing songs like "Troubled Man," also from "Plain Spoken," where he admits the fight hasn't always been worthwhile: "Anxiety and sorrow/Underneath my skin/Self destruction and failure/Have beat my head in/I laughed out loud once/I won't do that again."

On the one hand, Mellencamp is the rebel, fighting for what he thinks is right ("Rain on the Scarecrow," which still resonates almost 30 years after its release), but on the other hand, he's an aging rebel.

And in the course of a concert, that meant the fans had to wait until the fourth song before reaching a bona fide hit ("Small Town") and bringing the crowd to its feet. That tended to be a repeated pattern - when Mellencamp played his hits (he played most of them save "R.O.C.K in the U.S.A." and a "I Need a Lover," which was played as part of a lively, engaging violin and accordion medley), the crowd stood.

Not that they sat on their hands when Mellencamp played lesser-known songs. Mellencamp excelled on a few bluesy numbers, including Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway."

Mellencamp dipped into the music from the musical he penned with Stephen King, "Ghost Brothers of Darkland County," bringing out opening act Carlene Carter to sing.

As usual, Mellencamp gave ample space to his band. Violinist Miriam Sturm was the biggest beneficiary as she spiced and sparked up a bunch of songs as did accordionist/keyboardist Troye Kinnett. A few quick drum solos for

Where he didn't excel was in the vocal delivery. His rasp has grown more pronounced a la Dylan, although nowhere near the worn voice that Dylan warbles today. Mellencamp took awhile before being able to belt out the songs ending the night with the always pleasing "Crumblin' Down," "Authority Song" with a snippet of "Land of 1000 Dances" thrown in, "Pink Houses" and "Cherry Bomb."

Yes, he closed with the hits, but Mellencamp rightfully stood by his new material as well.

Carter turned in a job well done in opening the night playing solo acoustic. She proudly talked about the Carter Family (she's the granddaughter of Maybelle and daughter of June Carter Cash) as well she should have because she sang several songs from last year's excellent "Carter Girl" CD, giving a context to her performance and career. Chief among them was "Me and The Wildwood Rose" about her late sister.

Like Mellencamp, Carter has had a long career and made her older songs like "I Fell in Love" and "Every Little Thing" sound fresh.

Always a warm, friendly presence, Carter's voice remains in great shape. It's a potent weapon in infusing the songs with emotion without over-emoting.

When you're talking Carter Family, you are talking mighty big shoes to even try to fill, and while Carter has had her share of ups and downs in life, she deservedly wears the mantle of "Carter Girl."