John Mellencamp is miles beyond his young-boy days, and if you need proof, take a spin through his 2010 CD "No Better Than This." Utterly and completely devoid of power chords, chili dogs and R.O.C.K.ing, it's a cold, gritty and often mean set of blues-based acoustic songs he recorded, in part, on the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Savannah. The whole thing was laid down using a mic from the '40s and a 55-year-old tape recorder. Jack and Diane do not appear.
So it would stand to reason that the tour behind "No Better Than This," which visited Savannah's Johnny Mercer Theatre last Friday, would be less a Hoosier house party and more an exploration of the blues. It's actually more a show about death. The first four songs Mellencamp brought on Friday -- "Authority Song," "No One Cares About Me," "Death Letter" and "John Cockers," are among his most grim (authority, after all, always wins), and in such a context it becomes clear just how many of Mellencamp's songs are about why it might be more convenient to just abandon everything and sit in a shack in the moonlight until you die. "Nothing lasts forever," he mourns in the gorgeous "Longest Days," "Your best efforts don't always pay."
Yet that dusty, bluesy structure, along with Mellencamp's reliable and delightful lack of give-a-damn, means that the "No Better Than This" show affords a truly fresh take on his Hall of Fame catalog. Mellencamp brought his usual band -- including forever guitarist Mike Wanchic and wonderful, scene-setting violinist Miriam Sturm -- but for the first third of the show he had them resculpt both new tracks and hits in a scaled-back, old-Americana style heavy on the mandolin and accordion, something reminiscent of the Avett Brothers or Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions" tour. "Walk Tall" loped along with a gentle swing; "Check It Out" got a gentle touch. Moreover, Mellencamp let his voice drag across the gravel even more than usual; these days he's closer to recent tourmate Bob Dylan's scratch-raspy blues than anything, especially on "John Cockers" and "Easter Eve." The effect was pretty great, and set a stage for a mid-show acoustic set that showed off his strongest recent songwriting (the sparkling "Save Some Time To Dream") as well as afforded a new avenue to the standards (auto-singalongs "Small Town" and a partly a cappella "Jack and Diane").
It wasn't all grief, of course: Mellencamp's a wise enough showman to end with a Rock Band run that included "Rain on the Scarecrow," "Paper in Fire" and "ROCK in the USA," although you get the sense he approaches that one with the same enthusiasm Buffett approaches "Cheeseburger in Paradise." But as with the rest of the show, it was the slightly-less-known scorchers like "What If I Came Knocking" and the blues monster "If I Die Sudden" that hit closer to home, tracks that looked forward rather than the other way. This was a Mellencamp show that was a challenge; the casual fans with a greatest-hits comp or two on their libraries were probably the ones yelling "Bring back the Cougar!" from somewhere in the back. Sorry fellas, the Cougar's vanished, but it's absolutely worth seeing where he's gone off to.