“Watch out for the creepers,” sang John Mellencamp last night at the onset of an efficient and entertaining performance at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. The bemused warning, part of a hapless blast of modern day paranoia and mistrust called “Lawless Times,” signaled business as usual for the Indiana rocker. His singing voice may have changed a bit with a coarser delivery that was likely the by-product of age and tobacco. But the creakiness, along with the loose, roots-driven sound of an expert band, kept the hard times from hitting too close to home. In fact, Mellencamp made himself one of the tune’s unwitting victims. “If you want to steal this song,” he sang, “it can easily be loaded down.”
The program evolved into an appealing mix of songs new and old, familiar and obscure. “Lawless Times” was one of three tunes offered from Mellencamp’s 2014 album “Plain Spoken,” a record that colored the Americana-savvy narratives that have long been trademarks of his finer compositions with a leaner, blues-leaning sound. The highlight of the trio was “The Isolation of Mister,” a personal requiem where regret and loneliness out measured any pervasive sense of loss. “I thought happiness was a transgression,” Mellencamp sang with stoic solemnity. “I just took it as it came.”
There were also instances where the blues attitude won out, as in a version of the Robert Johnson classic “Stones in My Passway” (cut for Mellencamp’s 2003 covers album “Trouble No More”) that whittled singer and band down to a lean quartet. Curiously, as the economical roots music charge intensified, the vocals took on a near James Brown-level fervency.
The hit parade, of course, was what electrified the crowd. Patrons listened patiently as the more ragged extremes of Mellencamp’s singing triggered the very Tom Waits-like turns of “The Full Catastrophe” (a deep cut from 1996’s “Mr. Happy Go Lucky” album). But when a highly electric “Rain on the Scarecrow” revealed the full might of the band or when Mellencamp took on a solo acoustic reworking of “Jack and Diane,” the audience erupted.
The latter was performed with almost apologetic candor. “The only reason I still play this is because I know you guys want to hear it.” Playing is about all he did. Mellencamp sang a lead-in verse or two, but largely let the audience handle the vocal chores.
Some of the show’s older works have aged better than others. “Pop Singer” just needs to be jettisoned. It wasn’t that strong of a single when it hit radio in 1989. If there was any intended irony within the storyline (“Never wanted to be no pop singer”) it was lost years ago. If it was intended as something more matter-of-fact, then some explaining of the ticket prices – which topped out at over $200 – was in order. On the flip side, “Check It Out” remained every bit the effortless everyman anthem it was when the song was released in 1987, still bolstered by an Americana flair and a surprising lyrical hopefulness that have not dimmed.
The show-stealer, though, was another sleeper, “Longest Days.” The leadoff song from 2007’s T Bone Burnett-produced “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” album, it was introduced by a touching and quite humorous remembrance of Mellencamp’s late grandmother. The song itself was pure folk poetry written – and, curiously, sung – with the directness and simplicity of a John Prine chestnut.
As a bonus, the performance sported a 45 minute opening set by Carlene Carter. The singer’s career has shifted from post-punk pop (in the late ‘70s and ‘80s) to mainstream country (late ‘80s and ‘90s) to the roots-driven Americana of the Carter Family, of which she is a third generation member. While her stage persona was often the astonishing embodiment of her late mother, June Carter Cash, the unaccompanied set was an arresting blend of Carter Family faith (“The Storms are on the Ocean”), vintage originals reflecting a surprisingly deep vocal resonance (“Easy From Now On”) and learned folk expression (“Blackjack David”). She joined Mellencamp later it in the evening to preview tunes from a collaborative album due out next year. But it was on her own that Carter merged three distinct career chapters into a single, joyous set.