On the Beat

John Mellencamp ages against the dying of the light

John Mellencamp brings his Sad Clowns and Hillbillies Tour to Cary, N.C.'s Booth Amphitheatre Wednesday night, June 28, 2017 with Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter.
John Mellencamp brings his Sad Clowns and Hillbillies Tour to Cary, N.C.'s Booth Amphitheatre Wednesday night, June 28, 2017 with Emmylou Harris and Carlene Carter. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Toward the end of his Wednesday night set at Booth Amphitheatre, John Mellencamp took it down for a little between-verse spiel. It was during “Authority Song,” on which he sings of fighting the good fight and never giving up even though “authority always wins.”

“I was 25 years old when I wrote this song,” Mellencamp told the crowd, “and I still feel the same as I did the night I wrote it. And I hope you do, too.”

Four decades after he was going by the name John Cougar, Mellencamp has aged surprisingly well. He’s 65 years old now, and his general demeanor in word and song is a skeptical populism that seems eminently sensible given the state of the world these days.

Mellencamp’s songs have aged with him, too. In particular, “Check It Out” rings far truer now than it did 30 years ago, perfectly capturing that moment when you realize it’s not just the world passing you by but your own life - and it ain’t gonna last forever. Nothing for it but to rock against the dying of the light.

Fronting a big band featuring three electric guitars as well as fiddle and accordion, Mellencamp put his catalog through its paces, with intriguing rearrangements that often rocked up the quiet ones while quieting down the loud ones. It was a modestly workmanlike set, in which the star entered the stage to an understated introduction: “Ladies and gentlemen, from Bloomington, Ind., please welcome Mr. John Mellencamp.”

With his voice aging into a gravelly growl, Mellencamp’s music has moved ever closer to the blues in recent years, and it suits him. The show-opening “Lawless Times” was built on Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” riff, and he turned the 1937 Robert Johnson song “Stones in My Passway” into something you could imagine the late Mississippi bluesman doing had he ever had the chance to play electric rather than acoustic guitar.

Mellencamp skipped a fair amount of his biggest hits, with “I Need a Lover,” “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” “Hurts So Good” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” among the missing. But this wasn’t really a greatest-hits set, even if he somewhat grudgingly offered up a solo acoustic rendition of “Jack & Diane” after admitting that the only reason he still plays that one is that people still want to hear it.

Much better was “Rain on the Scarecrow,” with an airy arrangement that made its portents of doom sound even more apocalyptic, and a show-closing “Cherry Bomb” that resonated with the same bittersweet wistfulness as “Check It Out.” Mellencamp’s band was quite solid, too, especially violinist Miriam Sturm - who hit the perfect balance between signature riffs and new wrinkles. “Cherry Bomb” and “Paper in Fire” were better for it.

Commencing the show Wednesday night was Carlene Carter, scion of the iconic Carter Family, with a brisk 25-minute set that was long on homespun aw-shucks charm. But middle act Emmylou Harris came close to stealing the evening altogether.

Still burning brighter than a thousand suns and regal as ever, Harris turned 70 earlier this year, yet does not appear to have lost a thing vocally. With lead guitarist Will Kimbrough pushing her just enough, she slayed “Luxury Liner,” “Wheels” and “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”

They do, you know.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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