Mellencamp, Los Lobos
Union Center, Dec. 8
of course, there are the songs: You’ve heard them so many
times that they’re already in you before you enter the arena.
Then, there’s him, at 56, looking the same as ever
in jeans, T-shirt and vest; thick, brown hair poofed-out in
an Aqua-Netted halo, doing his stiff little dance on the stage
it’s because you’ve heard the songs and seen the man so many
times, on MTV or elsewhere, that things seemed kind of “faux”
the beginning portion of John Mellencamp’s concert at the
Times Union Center Saturday night came off like a revue, as
he efficiently clipped through a succession of hits, opening
up with that anthem that’s lodged in our collective DNA—“Pink
Houses”—as a band of top-notch hired hands provided a thick,
a strange shift. After all, Los Lobos had just left the stage.
And if there’s ever a band who wear their humanity (despite
being a force of nature), it’s Los Lobos. These are men, with
lines of worry and humor etched on their faces, and miles
beneath their belts (and bellies above).
is something else—not mythic like Springsteen, but certainly
singular and symbolic. And he’s written these heartland rock
songs that, even if you don’t own a Mellencamp (or Cougar,
or Cougar Mellencamp) album, have wormed into your consciousness.
early on, Mellencamp was alone onstage with an acoustic guitar,
carelessly running his fingers through his hair enough to
de-poof it, and becoming more human by degrees. He started
dropping F-bombs (and MF-bombs) and getting political and
raunchy in his patter.
a stirring version of a surprisingly dour but striking new
song, “Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus),” which seemed a concession
to loneliness and age, and hinted at the origins of many Mellencamp
compositions: When all hollowed-out and sans band and production,
they aren’t rousing heartland blasts but sturdy folk songs
with undeniable rock hooks. He also chose to offer up “Small
Town” solo, yet again not as a pop phenom but as a songwriter
of extraordinarily solid songs.
the band returned, something seemed to have been shaken loose,
and they roared through earth-shaking versions of “Jena,”
Mellencamp’s biting condemnation of racism in the titular
Louisiana town, and “Rain on the Scarecrow.” The latter was
the highlight of the night, a Rickenbacker-laced, folk-rock
storm cloud that showcased Mellencamp’s range as a songwriter.
(No teens outside the Tastee Freeze here, just fierce drive
and the barbaric yawp of loan- and Reaganomics-saddled farming
proved that while he might be meat and potatoes, he’s some
of the best you ever had. And with a galaxy of cell-phone
lights encircling the arena, he finally offered up “Jack and
Diane,” which came off as something more than a song—more
like some kind of collective release and sense of pleasure
and duty. (We pay taxes, we enjoy PBJ with cold milk, and
we rise to our feet at “Jack and Diane.”)
returning to Albany after their August Alive at Five show,
were mighty as ever, opening with the electric stomp of their
overlooked 1992 gem “Short Side of Nothin’.” The tall, barrel-bodied
David Hidalgo sang with soulful abandon, while guitarist and
sometimes singer Cesar Rosas, icy-cool behind his trademark
shades, stayed way stage left, in a physical space outside
the fold, but musically deep in the pocket.
should occupy a place in the canon akin to that of the Band.
They are a distillation of the deepest and finest Americana
rock, and 30-plus years in, they are powerful, versatile and
are crowd-pleasers too, leaving Albany with an exhilarating
“La Bamba” that morphed into the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’ ” and
hauled the arena straight into rock & roll paradise. Or
somewhere near it.