Some who gathered to see John Mellencamp at the Seneca Niagara Casino Thursday night might have been worried they were in for a stripped-down, bare-bones performance after the first few songs in his roughly 70-minute set, rather than the full-strength show they were expecting.
However, Mellencamp and his phenomenal band finally transitioned to the small-town rock ’n’ roll he’s known for about halfway through the concert and delivered it with verve.
Mellencamp got things started with “Human Wheels” and a new song, “Troubled Man,” that’s included on his upcoming new album “Plain Spoken.” The songs were fine, but Mellencamp, dressed formally in a full black suit and royal blue shirt, seemed to just be going through the motions as he played them.
A glint of personality peeked out in a story about his grandmother, followed by a thoughtful and sad “Longest Days.” Then he played two of his biggest hits – “Jack and Diane” and “Small Town” – with just an acoustic guitar and minimal band accompaniment. Both were clearly songs he’s played hundreds of times, and he let the more-than-willing audience handle a large part of the singing. Though the acoustic take really brought out the songs’ wistfulness (and he cracked a well-received joke in “Small Town” about his three marriages: “don’t know if it’s the town or me … probably me”), I’m sure many fans were hoping for a more traditional performance of the two favorites.
Mellencamp finally let loose on the seventh song in his 13-song show – his jacket came off and the rest of the band fired up as they barreled their way through “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire” and “Crumblin’ Down.” Mellencamp played with a smirk and a swagger in the last song especially, one that had the audience dancing in the aisles and standing up at their seats.
Though Mellencamp did eventually put on a fun, energetic show, it was his band that really shined throughout the concert. In particular, the magnificent Miriam Sturm could not be contained, her violin – by turns plaintive, soaring and wickedly wild – acting as the heart of almost every melody. Andrew York and Mike Wanchic, the latter having played by Mellencamp’s side for more than three decades, did the heavy lifting on guitar with style. Accordion/keyboard/harmonica player Troye Kinnett added the unique touches that Mellencamp’s songs are known for.
“R-O-C-K in the USA” and “Pink Houses” (perhaps better known as “Ain’t That America”) took the show in an appropriately patriotic direction for an Independence Day eve event, and “Authority Song” and the nostalgic “Cherry Bomb” ended things.
The audience was enthusiastic throughout, and – judging by the clapping, dancing, singing and screaming – also a pleased one. However, the short performance left people wanting more – perhaps for the days where a smoke was a smoke, groovin’ was groovin’ and a performance by a rocker with 20 albums under his belt showcased more than a baker’s dozen of songs.