It was tough to find the real John Mellencamp until late in his Orpheum performance.
John Mellencamp has always been a proud contrarian. A chip on the shoulder kind of guy, a rebel with a cause but not a clue, a self-deprecating outsider who likes to be different for the sake of being different.
Now that he's ensconced in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and 14 years past his last radio hit, he's doing it his way. Good-bye arenas, hello theaters. Adios classic rock, welcome roots rock. It's time to make art, not radio music.
Mellencamp called his concert Monday at the sold-out Orpheum Theatre "a vaudeville show." It featured a documentary movie, and then three distinct live music sets: stripped-down roots rock, laid-back acoustic music and full-tilt classic rock. It added up to a curious, challenging and ultimately unsatisfying evening.
Freed of the arena albatross, Mellencamp opened with what could be his theme song -- "Authority Song" ("I fight authority, authority always wins"). Ah, the likable contrarian. With a slapping upright bass player and a standup drummer on a small kit, it felt like a Buddy Holly classic. In fact, for the next 90 minutes, Mellencamp came across more like a rootsy Texan than an Indiana rocker.
In the first set, he sounded like an amalgam of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Leon Redbone. During the acoustic segment, he seemed like John Prine, only with more oomph and less humor. In the electric closer, he became the John Mellencamp the fans had come to hear. But, for many, it seemed too little, too late.
At 59, he sounded in good voice but he didn't really push himself. Although he looks as buff as the Boss and he waved his arms, he wasn't a physical performer who worked the stage. Despite the intimacy of the Orpheum, he didn't really connect with the fans.
Although Mellencamp's 127-minute performance lacked momentum until the electric set, there were many rewards along the way by the singer and his excellent six-member band: Son House's "Death Letter" full of cool bluesy attitude; the haunting, seething "The West End" (an urban answer to "Rain on the Scarecrow"); the sweet and poignant "Save Some Time To Dream"; the a cappella "Cherry Bomb"; "Jack and Diane" recast as an island stroll; and the slashing "Rain on the Scarecrow" and the fiddle-sparked "What If I Came Knocking."
Mellencamp's unconventional opening act was an hourlong documentary "It's About You" by photographer-turned-first-time-filmmaker Kurt Markus who followed Mellencamp on his 2009 tour with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, during which he recorded "No Better Than This," his stark, rivetingly rootsy new album. In typical Mellencamp fashion, he instructed Markus to make himself, not the rock star, the focus of the movie. A hodge-podge travelogue and rock doc, "It's About You" is more indulgent than enlightening, with Markus trying to make profound comments, but sounding like the guy in the Motel 6 commercials.
For a set list, go to www.startribune.com/artcetera. Jon Bream • 612-673-1719