HOLMDEL, N.J. -- John Mellencamp dances onstage like a dervish;
he plays to the crowd.
Considering the scant attention they pay to a concert audience, the members of Son Volt
could just as easily be in a rehearsal studio.
They may come out of the same roots-rock tradition, but singer/songwriter Mellencamp
and latter-day country-rock band Son Volt put on radically different shows.
The contrast between the two was evident when Mellencamp's Rural Electrification Tour,
with opening act Son Volt, rolled into the PNC Bank Arts Center here Wednesday night --
midway through the bill's current U.S. trek. While Mellencamp rolled out
the showbiz shtick he's developed over the years, Son Volt were the epitome of low-key.
Calling Son Volt laid-back would be an understatement. The no-depression quartet led
by former Uncle Tupelo co-leader Jay Farrar played a short set including some of the
most memorable songs from its latest album, 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo. But
well-crafted rockers such as "Medicine Hat" and "Straightface" (
excerpt) were given lackadaisical presentations.
The members of Son Volt barely looked at the audience and Farrar's singing was mostly
unintelligible. Unless you knew the songs very well -- and judging by the crowd
response, most people were in the dark -- the set sounded muddled.
Conversely, the 47-year-old Mellencamp, who had unknowingly suffered a heart attack
just prior to his previous Arts Center show in 1994, knows how to excite an audience.
During the past few years his shows have become little more than hit parades. The
playlists consist of uptempo rockers, such as "Lonely Ol' Night," "Small Town" and
"Paper in Fire," done in rowdy style. Of course, that deprives Mellencamp's audience of
the thoughtful storytelling he's done on songs such as 1989's "Jackie Brown."
Considering his heart problems, it's amazing that Mellencamp, who wore all black
Wednesday, is still such a high-energy performer. Though he no longer runs around the
stage as much as he used to, he moves his body as few rockers can.
The singer, who mentioned soul-music legend James Brown in the lyrics of "R.O.C.K. in
the U.S.A.," indulged in gyrations and hip shaking that would make the frenetic Brown
proud. Mellencamp's suggestive dancing with singer/percussionist Pat Peterson on his
cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" was downright X-rated.
Mellencamp even shouted, "I know I'm a real cool dancer," during his 1983 hit "Crumblin'
The set rocked relentlessly with the exception of an acoustic rendering of his recent hit, "Your
Life Is Now" (RealAudio excerpt),
featuring a solo Mellencamp on vocals, guitar and harmonica. The version was
indicative of how much emotional power Mellencamp can have when he curtails the
Another highlight of the show occurred when Mellencamp, who mostly just danced
around with a mic, strapped on an electric guitar and led his eight-man band through
"Fruit Trader" -- a thoughtful song from last year's John Mellencamp, his most
recent album and his first for Columbia Records after years on the Mercury label.
The "Fruit Trader" lyric "Better let a little bit of this goodness get in" is a long way from the
line "Sucking on chili dogs outside the Tasty Freeze" off his 1982 #1 single "Jack &
Diane." Not that Mellencamp didn't turn "Jack & Diane" into a crowd sing-along.
For "Rain on the Scarecrow," Mellencamp varied from the recorded version by
emphasizing the lyrics with passionate "Oh yeahs" that were more exciting than any
party atmosphere manufactured by his band's choreography.
The classic Mellencamp song-stories "Cherry Bomb" and "Check It Out," from his
acclaimed 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, ended the concert without
crowd-participation gimmicks. They still resonate, even with kids too young to have listened to
Mellencamp in his prime.
"[Mellencamp] has kept his own identity," Rachel Klein, 20, of Manalapan, N.J., said.
"Every other [veteran rocker] has changed."
"We're probably the two youngest people here," said Klein's friend, Nicole Cohen, also
20. "But we like this kind of music."