Back in college I was so blown away by John Mellencamp's greatest hits compilation, The Best That I Could Do, that I sold my CD back to the record store and put the proceeds towards two of his regular releases, American Fool and Scarecrow, with plans for celebrating the man's entire catalog as income allowed.
A short while later I was again at the CD store, this time selling back those two CDs and using the money to rebuy the hits package.
Just another lesson from college that didn't have anything to do with my classes: Mellencamp's hits are among rock's finest songs; his other material is largely unremarkable though. Not to sound like Rand Paul, but with regards to deciding which Mellencamp songs are best, the market has won out.
That theory proved true again last night at the Mellencamp's almost sold-out show at the Louisville Palace: the hits, often played in a stripped down, more mature style than the original album cuts, resonated. Many of the other songs though didn't, not due to the performance than because of the song itself.
Mellencamp and his six-member band came on stage to Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down," a trance-like meditation in which Cash is accompanied by stomps, claps and light guitar picking, that set the mood for the concert and seems like a heavy influence on a lot of Mellencamp's recent work.
A pared back "Authority Song," kicked off the show, the first of nine songs from the aforementioned 1997 hits package. While recognizable, many of the classics were stripped down considerably from their original versions. The reworkings were usually both brilliant and necessary: a thrice-divorced 60-year-old can't sing about fighting The Man in the same manner he did when he was 21 and not sound ridiculous.
He followed the opener with "No One Cares About Me," which could have used a little subtlety in its title (and chorus). Mellencamp broke out a Tom Waits-like voice in this number too, a pitch that came in and out throughout the show. Five songs in, "Crumbling Down" got the still-standing audience to sing along with a vigor that Mellencamp was unable to elicit when he tried with the previous number ("John Cockers").
The momentum carried over to "Check It Out," two songs later:
(For the number of people recording the show with their cameras and cell phones, it's surprising only one video has made it to YouTube).
After a solo performance on the acoustic guitar of "Save Some Time To Dream," Mellencamp rewarded the fans who hadn't gone to the bathroom or beer line with a similarly styled rendition of "Jack & Diane." Mellencamp sang the first verse a cappella, letting the audience take over for the choruses, the result being a mass requieum for a time that'd passed by the largely middle-aged audience. "Small Town" received a similar treatment five songs later.
Mellencamp, typically an outspoken liberal, made no mention of politics last night. The banter was sparse but witty, notably when he shared an anecdote in which while praying together, his grandmother informed God that she and Mellencamp were ready to come home. The rocker, however, piped up that he still had some sinning to do.
The Hoosier closed out the show with what his website describes as a "full rock set." The six songs were heavy on the hits, including the last three: Pink Houses, ROCK In The USA and Cherry Bomb, which closed out the show in rapid-fire succession.
The one-set concert clocked in at 1 hour 55 minutes, making it the first rock show I remember attending that was shorter than two hours. It's also the first one I can recall (booze, age) where the performer gave no semblance of an encore. Tickets cost $55 to $143 (disclosure: not for me, I had media access).
"It's About You ," a 79-minute documentary filmed in Super 8 on Mellencamp's 2009 tour that included footage from his Louisville Slugger Field concert  drew a good crowd before the show.
The setlist (with groupings via JohnMellencamp.com ):
1. Authority Song
2. No One Cares About Me
3. Death Letter
4. John Cockers
5. Crumblin' Down
6. Walk Tall
7. Check It Out
8. Save Some Time To Dream
9. Jack and Diane
10. A Ride Back Home (Hey Jesus)
11. Easter Eve
12. Jackie Brown
13. Longest Days
14. Small Town with fiddle/accordion hymn
Full Rock Set:
15. Rain On The Scarecrow
16. Paper In Fire
17. Circling Around The Moon
18. If I Die Sudden
19. What If I Come Knocking
20. Pink Houses
21. ROCK In The USA
22. Cherry Bomb
Mellencamp's band included Michael Wanchic (guitar), Andy York (guitar), Miriam Sturm (violin), John Gunnell (electric and upright bass), Dane Clark (drums and percussion) and Troye Kinnett (accordion/keyboards).
Photo: Zach Everson