John Mellencamp: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, LA 5/1/11

Musicians possessing a cocky attitude are an age-old accessory to rock & roll. It is how they have used that sass that makes the musician loved or hated. John Mellencamp is one of those artists who have at times told you bluntly to kiss his ass.

He walks with his head held high and speaks his mind. Yet if he believes in you, senses that your intentions are pure of heart, he can become the meanest bulldog in your corner when things come to a brawl. So when it was announced that Mellencamp would close out the first weekend of Jazz Fest, it left many to wonder which Mellencamp was going to show up and what he would have to say about it.

Dressed in black slacks, black jacket and white t-shirt on a hot afternoon, he took to the main Acura stage with a confident swagger that he used to start his set with a swift kick. “Authority Song”, the new “No One Cares About Me” and “Death Letter” was just enough oomph to douse the crowd with a fever. He could tell they wanted more than sad acoustic wallowers, so he spread everything out, from rock stompers to pledges of American dreams, from wrenching acoustic poems to nut-rocking fiddle-fire barn-burners. It was a set that any Mellencamp fan would love.

Introducing “Jackie Browne” with a bitterness, Mellencamp pleaded, “Why do they always have the money for the defense but never have the money for the people?” And on “John Cockers”, his sneering contempt was apparent while he let the spirit of the guitar take his ode to the farmer, “Rain On The Scarecrow”, into new angry heights.

But Mellencamp never let anyone get too far down into the melancholy. He rocked out on “Paper In Fire”, “R.O.C.K. in the USA”, “Crumblin’ Down” and “Pink Houses”. With his talented backing band, including fiddler Miriam Sturm, Mellencamp had it made in the shade musicianship-wise. They had all the right rhythms and nuances to make you feel, even when Mellencamp wasn’t telling you how to feel.

A few other Mellencamp hits were given different treatments. “Jack & Diane” was given a rockabilly hitch in the giddy-up, while “Small Town” was slowed to a scruffily slow acoustic playful diddy. At one point in the song when he sang about bringing wives to his small town, he philosophized, “I don’t know if it’s small town or it’s me … I’m thinking it’s probably me,” before Miriam’s fiddle and Troye Kinnett’s accordion joined him to end in a sweet lullaby of notes.

It was good to see these jovial moments from a man who can come off quite rough and tough. When he began “Jackie Brown” in the wrong key, an audience member was quick to let him know. “E flat, you’re right,” Mellencamp laughed. It was a pleasant unrehearsed moment that made him appear, well, human.

There were more glimpses of the former Cougar’s playful side: he danced unselfconsciously on “Death Letter” and led everyone in an over-the-head clapping chorus during “Check It Out”.

When all was said and done, Mellencamp brought the musician/singer/songwriter to New Orleans and left the smart ass back somewhere in LA.

Setlist: Authority Song, No One Cares About Me, Death Letter, John Cockers, Jack & Diane, The West End, Check It Out, Jackie Brown, Small Town, Rain On The Scarecrow, Paper In Fire, The Real Life, Pink Houses, R.O.C.K. In The USA, Crumblin’ Down.

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