John Mellencamp, he of the Wolverine hair and Hoosier swagger, has spent most of his feisty, fruitful life raisin' a ruckus in the mythic populist shadows of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He's never been considered quite their caliber of denim laureate, perhaps because he chased MTV fame with a bit more zeal than his fellow blue-collar bards.
But at an intimate — and rowdy — sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday, the 59-year-old former Johnny Cougar showed that a late-career uninterest in chasing glory (and his heroes) has freed him to become the artist he has always envisioned — and, ironically, has moved him closer to Bob and the Boss than ever.
With a celeb-packed crowd of 2,183 (including new gal pal Meg Ryan) robustly cheering him on — especially when he uncorked slick James Brown dance moves — the Hall of Famer and his six-piece band slugged tirelessly for more than two hours, unloading rarities, songs from new album No Better Than This and a smattering of hits, many of which were retooled to wild, imaginative degrees. (Jack & Diane as a frisky barn dance? Sure, why not.)
Before the show, Mellencamp showed a beautifully grainy hourlong doc about the making of 2010's No Better Than This, which was recorded in various music Valhallas, including Sun Studios in Memphis. It also set up the rest of the night, as Mellencamp has more interest in his new material — a Dust Bowl swing that cooks, if doesn't exactly fly off store shelves — than in his oldies-but-goodies.
"I really don't give a (bleep) about the past," he laughed at one point. "I'm always looking forward."
Switching from semi-unplugged to acoustic to a cappella (Cherry Bomb) to a thunderous electric finale — and tossing in stories, including one about his grandma ushering him to heaven a bit too early — Mellencamp was energetic but artful, which didn't always go over with fans. The throngs were downright rude at times, including a numbskullian "yeow!" frenzy when he tried to play the lovely Save Some Time to Dream.
But Ryan must be doing wonders for Mellencamp's infamous temper because instead of skinning the folks for making a racket, he said, "If you're waiting for a song, just be patient. It'll probably come up."
And it did — sort of.
Small Town was delivered via man and his guitar; no offense to the booming classic, but it was always meant to be a pensive soliloquy. Rain on the Scarecrow, on the other hand, was jacked to defibrillating levels, a massive plea for farmers that bordered on civil disobedience.
Mellencamp finished with Pink Houses and R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A., crowd-pleasing nods to those who were patient through the new stuff. He's often said he considers them to be "silly" songs, but he can't resist. Hey, he might never write like Dylan or Springsteen — but at least he's a better dancer.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.