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MUSIC REVIEW

Mellencamp breathes new life into old hits

John Mellencamp played for more than two hours Thursday night in Lowell. John Mellencamp played for more than two hours Thursday night in Lowell. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / February 5, 2011

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Thanks to a sturdy back catalog, a sturdy back, and a whip-smart band, John Mellencamp can do the summer shed greatest hits shuffle as well, or better than, any of his peers.

But for his first small venue tour in over a decade, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer isn’t interested in going the jukebox route.

Instead, Thursday night at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Mellencamp took a leap of faith with his set list. The joy of that liberation was palpable, from the pep in his trademark slide-and-wriggle dance moves to the kinetic quality of the epic, emotionally satisfying two-hour-and-20-minute performance.

Even though his most recent album — the superb, stark, T Bone Burnett-produced “No Better Than This’’ — wasn’t a huge mainstream success, for the most part, the sold-out crowd happily took the leap with him. The 59-year-old Hoosier and his six-piece group — playing in several different configurations from solo acoustic to full electric band with fiddle and accordion — blended a healthy amount of the grittier, folk- and country-oriented material that has been his passion for the last decade with a clutch of his classic rock hits, retrofitted to match that down-home vibe.

That those changes hardly made the songs unrecognizable no doubt helped. (Although after a couple of long, hitless stretches the crowd did treat familiar riffs — the lilting violin of “Check It Out’’ for instance — like an oasis in the desert.)

From the opener, “Authority Song,’’ tricked out with a sweet rockabilly feel, to a nicely craggy solo take on “Small Town’’ to a swinging rendition of the little ditty about “Jack and Diane,’’ Mellencamp and his players did just enough to keep things fresh without taking the crowd out of the songs. One older song he didn’t mess with was the masterful family farm lament “Rain on the Scarecrow,’’ a dependable chiller, 25 years on.

The newer material visits familiar Mellencamp ground: mortality, poverty, disillusionment, man’s inhumanity to man. But there is something more emotionally grimy about songs like the hitching, bluesy death rattler “If I Die Sudden,’’ the growling, devastating skid row sketch “The West End,’’ and even the hopefully cautionary “Save Some Time to Dream’’ that feel like Mellencamp is truly getting to the heart of the matter as a songwriter.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

JOHN MELLENCAMP At: Lowell Memorial

Auditorium, Thursday