Straight from the heartland
John Mellencamp is ready for your bad news. At the Greek Theatre on Thursday, stories of hard times fueled his songs, just as they always have, with Mellencamp’s raspy drawl calling on the rest of us to join his bittersweet jubilee.
His 90-minute set began with “Pink Houses,” his rousing hit tune from 1983, when he was already singing of strained optimism in the face of lowered expectations in Norman Rockwell’s version of the USA. With his six-piece band behind him, Mellencamp urgently strummed an acoustic guitar as film clips from “Easy Rider,” “The Last Picture Show” and “Hud” flashed behind him. “Just like everything else, those old crazy dreams just kinda came and went,” he wailed from stage.
Much of Mellencamp’s work has been relentlessly defiant, facing hard luck with longing and sheer will. Even the “ditty of Jack and Diane” is delivered with enough joy to disguise the suggestions of some inevitable disappointments of adulthood: “Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”
But it is often the Mellencamp songs most filled with real doubt that cut the deepest. In 1985, his album “Scarecrow” came during what were dark times for many, with international Cold War threats in the air and family farms failing at home, and his response was an album of bold social commentary at ground level, celebrating small-town life and rock-soul-folk salvation.
His best work since that album is his newest, “Life Death Love and Freedom,” a collection produced by T Bone Burnett, maestro of modern Americana. At the Greek, songs from that album were among the night’s most compelling, rough-hewn and direct.
Mellencamp performed the album’s understated opening track, “Longest Days,” alone with an acoustic guitar, and the result was Dylanesque and reflective: “You pretend not to notice that everything has changed / The way that you look, and the friends you once had . . . But deep down in your soul, you know you got no flame.”
The lyrics to “If I Die Sudden” are nearly as grim as the ancient folk lament “O Death” (as recorded by the Stanley Brothers), but as he performed it Thursday, Mellencamp was rejoined by his full band and its dueling guitars. Set against a spooky rumble, he sang: “Just put me in a pine box, six feet underground / And don’t be calling no minister, I don’t need one around.”
The songs that fell between Mellencamp’s optimism and despair were the only moments that felt flat, though his exceptional skills as a bandleader and arranger ensured that nothing ever slowed his live momentum at the Greek. During “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” he performed a little go-go dance, and as he began “Jack and Diane,” he asked fans to call friends and family on their cellphones so they could hear him sing: “Yeah, life goes on!”
Earlier, support act Lucinda Williams had her own stories to tell. At her best, Williams is as thoughtful and vibrant a rocker as Tom Petty. With her band Buick 6, Williams performed new songs from her upcoming album, “Little Honey,” due Nov. 4.
Among those songs was the unruly and wistful “Little Rock Star,” the slow blues of “Tears of Joy,” ignited with some emotional sparks of electric guitar from Doug Pettibone, and the Stonesy groove of “Out of Touch.” Leading it all was Williams, swaying behind the microphone wearing a big longhorn belt buckle, another artist with a gift for finding melody and vitality within good news and bad.