He’s still writing plenty of little ditties like “Jack and Diane,” but John Mellencamp long ago stopped getting the kind of omnipresent radio play and MTV screen time he earned with his ’80s Americana pop hits. For both him and his fans who came out to Wednesday’s concert at Northrop Auditorium, that seemed to be a good thing.
The Indiana-bred Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, 63, has crafted less slick, more intimate albums in recent years, including the aptly titled new one, “Plain Spoken.” He also found time to craft a musical production with author Stephen King, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.” He sang two songs from it with opening act Carlene Carter of country music’s first family.
These changes in direction suited the poshly refurbished performance hall, where Mellencamp settled in for the first of two nights instead of the one-stop sports-arena gigs he played for decades.
He opened with two of the more rugged and raw tunes on the new album, “Lawless Times” and “Troubled Man,” the latter’s tone suiting his increasingly raspy, cigarettes-ravaged voice. He wheezed a bit trying to hit the right notes in the two oldies that followed, “Minutes to Memories” and “Small Town,” but eventually the voice warmed up along with the near sell-out crowd. His band was hot from the get-go, with violinist Miriam Sturm making a big impression in “Small Town.”
Some of the high points of the 105-minute concert benefitted from the more intimate setting and Northrop’s newly refined, warm acoustics, starting with the moving new song “The Isolation of Mister,” one that had Mellencamp’s high-profile divorce written all over it. “Never cared about being lonely, because you didn’t love me no more” he sang.
Another wonderfully down moment came a few songs later with 2008’s stark “Longest Days,” inspired by a line his 100-year-old grandmother said on her death bed (“Life is short, even on the longest days”). That sharply contrasted with the wildest song of the night, “The Full Catastrophe,” a Vaudevillian piano plunker that turned into a Tom Waits-like dark ballad.
Plenty of older hits were offered, including a solo/acoustic “Jack and Diane” mid-set and straightly rocking versions of “Pink Houses” and “Cherry Bomb” at show’s end. Mellencamp picked the greatest hits wisely, delivering extra-moody versions of “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Paper in Fire” instead of bubblier fare — although Sturm and accordionist Troye Kinnett cutely added a snippet of “I Need a Lover” to a breath-catching instrumental medley.
In her 40-minute acoustic opening set, Carter — daughter of June Carter Cash — covered 100-plus years of music, going back to songs passed down through the Carter generations, including “Little Black Train” off her new Don Was-produced album “Carter Girl.”
“They’d throw you out on stage whether you were any good,” she quipped of the family before the tribute to her grandma Maybelle, “Me & the Wildwood Rose.” Carter sure sounded good Wednesday.