Illness saps some energy, but Mellencamp delivers

Paul Anthony Arco

The first concert in the newly renovated Rockford MetroCentre almost didn’t take place.

John Mellencamp broke the news to the crowd of 5,000 midway through his concert Wednesday night.

“I’ve been sick,” he said. “I almost canceled.”

But the show must go on and the aging rocker delivered what his adoring fans paid a steep price to see, a 90-minute mix of timeless classics as well as fresher material.

“There has been great buzz about this concert since it was announced,” said Brian Luther, assistant general manager of Centre Events. “John Mellencamp was great the last time he was here, and we expect another great show tonight.”

But the 56-year-old Mellencamp lacked the energy he displayed 2½ years ago.

Dressed in a jean jacket and blue jeans, Mellencamp strolled onto the stage greeted by thunderous applause. He and his six-piece band started strong enough, with hits such as “Pink Houses,” “Paper In Fire” and “Check It Out.”

But the fans endured an early lull in the show when Mellencamp played acoustic guitar 20 minutes in. Fans took to their seats as he showcased newer material such as “Lovers Without Friends.”

He ended the acoustic portion with “Small Town,” with a backdrop of scenes from Rockford including the Coronado Performing Arts Center, Whitman Street Bridge and the Symbol.

Disappointingly, there was no “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” “Hurt So Good” or “Cherry Bomb” — for Mellencamp fans, the equivalent of a well-known chef leaving his three most popular dishes off the menu.

At the same time, it was refreshing and bold, if not risky, for Mellencamp to put so much stock in new material when the diehards clearly came to hear the songs that made him a rock-and-roll legend.

Fans were served up material such as “If I Die Sudden,” “Ghost Town Along the Highway” and “Jena,” his ode to events playing out in the South. He also played “Our Country,” best known as a TV commercial advertising Chevy trucks and the first hit off “Freedom’s Road,” released earlier this year.

He closed strong, however, with fan favorites “Jack and Diane” and the “Authority Song.”

Opening for Mellencamp was Los Lobos, the Latin band best known for its 1987 No. 1 hit, “La Bamba.”

Anne O’Keefe first saw Mellencamp in Rockford in the 1980s. She was just as excited about seeing the new-look MetroCentre as she was Mellencamp.

“This is exciting,” she said. “I think this is the kickoff of many high-quality acts to come through town.”

It won’t take long to find out. Country act Brad Paisley plays Friday night at the MetroCentre.