Mellencamp still rocks the heartland

"Your life is now," John Mellencamp sang during his show at Tinley Park's Tweeter Center last Saturday, and one look around at the waving arms and dancing bodies in the packed stadium showed that fans were heeding that advice and celebrating the moment.

Actually they celebrated about an hour and 45 minutes of Mellencamp moments, as the singer led an amazingly tight and energetic nine-piece band through his impressive catalog of hits, with a couple of surprises thrown in.

Will Hoge got the crowd in the mood for earthy roots rock on the Tweeter's side stage as the crowd filed in the gates, playing tracks on the Levi's stage from his recent Carousel CD (a 3½-star album reviewed in Pop Stops on April 12), Hoge's promised second set between the Wallflowers and Mellencamp performances was, unfortunately, rained out.

That rain didn't clear the lawn of fans, however, as the Wallflowers took the stage for 45 minutes to prove that over two albums, they've already had their share of hits. Unfortunately, those hits didn't seem to warm the crowd. Opening with "Three Marlenas," Jakob Dylan showed little energy as he led his contemplative band through their singles.

The same could not be said of Mellencamp's section of the show. The Indiana icon kicked off his set with an immediately rousing cover of The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" before launching into a show that played like a gospel tent revival of his heartland hits. From the expanded rhythms of "Jack and Diane" to the pounding feel-good rock 'n' roll homage of "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." to the violin-heavy, Americana songs like "Small Town," Mellencamp kept the crowd on its feet.

While the stadium seats were flyered with postcards promoting Mellencamp's upcoming new album, Cuttin' Heads, his set barely touched on new material. He played his new single "Peaceful World" early and then stuck with a non-stop "hits" lineup. The crowd responded enthusiastically, singing along to nearly every number.

The stadium "big screens" were strangely silent through the first half of Mellencamp's set (a problem for those of us stuck standing behind people who insisted on dancing like drunken fools on top of their chairs). But midway through the show, the band left the stage to leave Mellencamp alone with his acoustic guitar. The screens finally lit up and displayed the singer in black and white, as he played a wryly amusing new song that began "women seem to like me." They stayed for the rest of the show, the black and white look of the simulcast offering an old-fashioned feel that augmented the vibrant show on stage.

After Mellencamp's "solo" song, it was back to business with the standard guitar, bass, drums, keys format with violin, flute, washboard, congas, bongos and more, creating a festival atmosphere, often without any break at all. Mellencamp's touring act has evolved into a combination carnival sideshow, down-home hootenanny and Afro-percussion celebration that makes all of his older material sound new again.

Between backing vocalist Pat Peterson's stage-running, crowd-inciting antics and Miriam Sturm's dramatic violin soloing, not to mention the rest of the band's dancing and handclapping energy, Mellencamp needs to do little more than provide the voice and the still-boyish smirk to keep it all going. With renditions of all the above-mentioned songs, as well as of other hits like "Pink Houses," "Paper in Fire" and more, Mellencamp delivered. While many performers would be content to trot out the hits and play them straight, Mellencamp reinvents his music with attitude and excitement.

His life is now, indeed.