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Blue-collar bonding at its best

Times Staff Writer

“This is the most fun I’m going to have all evening,” a jubilant John Mellencamp said as John Fogerty joined him onstage for two numbers during their co-headlining concert Monday at the Hollywood Bowl -- and it proved to be the most fun the audience was going to have as well.

Though both of these heroes of American blue-collar rock put on crowd-pleasing performances, the greatest-hits nature of their sets gave the evening too much predictability.

But all bets were off when Fogerty and Mellencamp picked up their guitars and sat side by side early in Mellencamp’s 90-minute show-closing set. Would they play their own songs? Something by their influences?

A Woody Guthrie tune would have made sense because both artists draw on his folk-commentary tradition. Or maybe a song by country legend Hank Williams, because they share his emotional purity and economy. Or how about a more contemporary influence? Bob Dylan’s sway runs all through their work.

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The question was answered when Fogerty began playing the supercharged notes of “Green River” on his electric guitar.

One reason the former Creedence Clearwater Revival leader is among the great rock songwriters is that he doesn’t rely solely on rock terminology. Instead, he injects his songs with a folksy wisdom and colorful regional mythology that give the music a more timeless and universal feel.

In “Green River,” Fogerty speaks about the innocence of childhood -- a refuge from the compromises and corruption of the real world.

As an energized Mellencamp rocked back and forth in his chair, they sang the opening lines of the 1969 song:

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Well, take me back down where cool water flows, yeah

Let me remember things I love

Stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite

Walkin’ along the river road at night

Barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight.

They then turned to “Rain on the Scarecrow,” a song from Mellencamp’s most creative period, the mid-'80s -- a time when he spoke eloquently about the American underdog spirit in such albums as “Scarecrow” and “The Lonesome Jubilee.”

In “Rain,” Mellencamp, a co-founder of the annual Farm Aid benefit concerts, hoped to raise public consciousness regarding the financial pressures that were driving American family farmers from their land.

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Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard

Ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms.

I think about my grandpa and my neighbors and my name

And some nights I feel like dyin’

Like that scarecrow in the rain.

Then it was back to business as usual as Mellencamp and his seven-piece band moved between his undistinguished early hits (“I Need a Lover,” “Hurts So Good”) and the more substantial ‘80s work.

Mellencamp sang with a vigor that was matched by his restless energy as a performer. His band redressed several of the songs, though an overemphasis on the accordion and violin parts made some the arrangements feel anonymous.

“Pink Houses,” his bittersweet 1983 hit about the American Dream, connected the most strongly. The Indiana native brought a friend, actor Matthew McConaughey, onstage to sing the song with him, but he didn’t need any help. Thousands in the audience were already singing along, especially on that key “Ain’t that America” phrase.

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There was lots of singing along with Fogerty as well, as he and a five-piece group went through his Creedence and solo hits including the biting “Fortunate Son” and the joyful “Hey Tonight” in his 70-minute set.

While Fogerty’s show was also stuffed with hit singles, it felt more substantial because his body of work is superior to Mellencamp’s, and because he stepped away from Top 40 fare for such tunes as “Bootleg” and “Keep on Chooglin’.”

Fogerty’s vocals continue to be one of the wonders of the world -- wistful and endearing on the recent, melancholy “Deja vu (All Over Again),” howling and urgent on the vintage “Bad Moon Rising.” The guitar licks also remain indelible.

Unlike many concert pairings where there is little sense of bonding between the headliners, Mellencamp and Fogerty exhibited a winning chemistry.

If they want to pursue the partnership, they have enough in common to design a show that could be truly special, one that uses their musical exchange as a central rather than bonus element.

It would be a groundbreaking move, one that could serve as a model for other veteran acts who are on the road this summer and fall. As much as we love the old songs, nothing is quite as memorable as being touched in a new way.

Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Robert.hilburn@latimes.com.


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