"You know this is a vaudeville show we're doing tonight," John Mellencamp joked with a full crowd a few songs into his set Monday night.
And if he didn't quite mean that literally — the slapstick comedy team and flatulists stayed at home — Mellencamp did take on several different guises during the show, playing the sincere, politically-attuned singer-songwriter while playing in a solo acoustic setting, the dapper, clever storyteller with a rootsier, stripped-down ensemble (string bass instead of electric, cocktail kit instead of full set) and the open-shirted, silver fox while leading a full-scale rock band through a closing set of hits.
And it was all to his credit: The variety show format allowed Mellencamp to show off his various talents, including his ability to pay respect to and lovingly recreate different styles of American music. That respect was demonstrated on a new album, No Better than This, which saw Mellencamp making a pilgrimage to and recording at various sites that saw plenty of musical history — Memphis's Sun Studios, a San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson performed, the first black church in the country.
A father-and-son documentary crew followed around Mellencamp during that pilgrimage, and the result, a 55-minute documentary called It's About You, was screened before Monday night's performance. The doc opens with filmmaker Kurt Markus (father to son and co-director Ian) explaining via voiceover that, while Mellencamp did agree to allow him to access the tour, he warned that such access could be revoked at any time and that the film would end up being more about Markus than Mellencamp himself. And it was, sometimes; Markus took time out to reflect on the American landscape (desecrated) and the act of filmmaking (a necessary one, existentially). But he mostly celebrated Mellencamp, capturing him in concert with hand-held 8mm film cameras and via black-and-white stills, managing to communicate the intensity of live performance and then some.
Mellencamp sustained the feel of No Better than This during the first half of his show, focusing on numbers from the new album, including a convincing, solo reading of "Save Some Time to Dream," a stop to smell the roses number that Mellencamp seemed to really believe Monday night, and that was strengthened by a flubbed chord as he let down his guard a bit more. He prefaced a solo version of "Jackie Brown" with his only spoken political commentary of the night (the Constitution prescribes money for protection and for our well-being, and "they've got money for protection, but they ain't got money for our well-being). And other highlights from the early-going included fully-orchestrated, full-ensemble versions of new songs like "Easter Eve" (a clever, violent ballad towards the end of the new record) and old, upbeat ones like "Check It Out," "Authority Song" and "Jack and Diane" (presented as a country shuffle).
When the band reached full volume (electric violin, electric bass, full set), Mellencamp took on a role of Heartland arena rocker that I'll confess interests me less than his recent explorations of the roots of American music — obviously, it makes sense to close the show with a hit like "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," and the band is as good as any, but I was far more interested in Mellencamp as a not quite virtuosic guitarist picking his way through songs from his mature era or as a student of American music giving his version of a crime ballad from the other side of the tracks.