“Ladies and gentlemen, from Bloomington, Indiana, John Mellencamp.”
Those few words — the introduction to Midwest rocker and troubadour Mellencamp’s show Tuesday night at the Saenger Theatre — said much about the star.
Bloomington is a long way from New York and Hollywood, places where people often go to make their dreams come true. On the Saenger stage, the pugnacious Mellencamp sang instead in gruff tones about small towns, little pink houses and working-class folks whose dreams don’t necessarily come true.
As the evening’s first two, recently recorded songs — “Lawless Times” and the likewise rootsy and dark “Troubled Man” — revealed, Mellencamp at 63 remains the populist poet-rocker he was three decades ago. Even in the formal black attire he and his band wore, the guitar-wielding, somewhat grizzled singer looked like a veteran electrician arriving at his next job.
He performed with a six-piece band that included the spotlight-sharing violinist Miriam Sturm and guitarist Mike Wanchic, a decades-long member of the Mellencamp band. The star and his band always seemed perfectly in sync.
Following a pair of songs from his spare, serious 2014 album “Plain Spoken,” Mellencamp stepped back 30 years for “Minutes to Memories,” a heartland anthem from his “Scarecrow” album.
“Minutes to Memories” stirred some memories in the audience, though not nearly as many as the following song, “Small Town.” Another “Scarecrow” selection and celebration of the common people, “Small Town” was the first song of the night to bring people out of their seats.
“We’re going to be doing all kinds of music for you tonight,” Mellencamp said after it.
One less familiar song was Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” Its lyrics about struggle and betrayal and its searing slide-guitar accompaniment were a fine fit for Mellencamp. Singing Johnson’s classic blues lines with authority, Mellencamp put his guitar aside, leaving himself free to dance and do some testifying.
“Longest Days,” a meditation on mortality from 2008’s “Life, Death, Love and Freedom” album, was among the darkest, yet truest, selections on the Saenger show’s set list.
Similarly bleak but much more fun, “The Full Catastrophe,” from his post-heart attack album, 1996’s “Mr. Happy Go Lucky,” featured a reflective Mellencamp singing and smoking a cigarette, after-hours lounge-singer style, accompanied only by piano.
Alone on stage with his acoustic guitar, Mellencamp did a throwaway performance of 1982’s “Jack & Diane.” His fans, however, couldn’t complain about the faithfully performed run of old favorites that ended the show.
Swagger and punch characterized songs from Mellencamp’s ’80s glory days: “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Paper in Fire,” “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb” and “Authority Song.”
“I think I was 25 or 26 years old when I wrote this song,” Mellencamp told his on-its-feet audience during “Authority Song.” “I still feel the same way as when I wrote it.”
Carlene Carter, the very talented daughter of June Carter Cash and granddaughter of “Mother” Maybelle Carter, opened the show and later joined Mellencamp for two of his set’s best performances.