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Ain’t That Americana

By Erik Hage

John Mellencamp, Los Lobos

Times Union Center, Dec. 8

 

First, 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 lip.

And maybe 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” at first.

Certainly 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, tight groove.

It was 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).

Mellencamp 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.

But then, 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.

He played 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.

When 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 generations.)

Mellencamp 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.”)

Los Lobos, 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.

Los Lobos 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 brilliant.

They 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.


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