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Live review: John Mellencamp at the Nokia Theatre, Bryan Adams at Royce Hall

April 11, 2011 |  6:00 am

Arena rock downsized over the weekend when John Mellencamp and Bryan Adams played relatively intimate concerts designed to showcase their humble singer-songwriter origins. Were the performances crafted as well to emphasize the sight of fans filling seats? Duh. As any means of measurement will demonstrate, rock has ceded its position in music's mainstream to hip-hop, country and pop; no longer do guys with guitars — particularly guys in their 50s — rule the radio or (what's left of) MTV. So perhaps each show disguised as a creative choice the reality of a market in flux. Whatever. Each used a smallish room to present a crystallized version of its star.

Mellencamp arrived at the Nokia Theatre on Friday night in support of his impressive 2010 album, “No Better Than This”; it's the latest installment in his ongoing roots-music makeunder, with blunt, sparsely arranged songs that ponder faith, mortality and the cost of progress. Where this Indiana native once sang exuberantly from the perspective of small-town folks struggling toward prosperity, he now appears more interested in narrating the unraveling of the American dream. (The ambiguity in the album's title — does “this” represent a peak or a trough? — neatly reflects that transition.)

Recent tunes made up a large portion of Mellencamp's two-hour set, including “Don't Need This Body,” a ragged blues number, and “The West End,” which he introduced as “a song about what happens when a country doesn't take care of its people.” Backed at various points by members of a six-piece band, the singer pushed the music in the direction of Mississippi, New Orleans, even West Africa; in a lengthy cover of “Death Letter,” by the blues great Son House, he looked on approvingly as his accompanists chewed on the song's groove for several minutes.

As engaged as he seemed in the record-collector stuff, though, Mellencamp didn't shy from his old hits. He opened with “Authority Song,” from the days when his working name included “Cougar,” and closed with a rousing one-two punch: “Pink Houses,” then “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” He also played a rowdy country-shuffle version of “Jack & Diane” and did a solo-acoustic take on “Small Town”; earlier, he'd stripped his sound down further for “Cherry Bomb,” which he sang a cappella.

Mellencamp's goal in reconfiguring these songs was clear: to establish that underneath the pop-radio polish lurked deep truths about American life. That's a project with serious study-hall potential, but because he went about his business without abandoning his natural animal magnetism, Mellencamp succeeded. He bridged the gap between the rock star in his mind and the one in ours.

Saturday night at UCLA's Royce Hall, Adams similarly provided a glimpse inside his songs, which he performed by himself on acoustic guitar with an occasional assist by pianist Gary Breit. (The concert was part of Adams's instructively titled “Bare Bones Tour.”) But the Canadian singer responsible for early-'80s hits such as “Cuts Like a Knife” and “Run to You” wasn't looking to expose his material's hidden complexity — a smart move, since there isn't any.

Rather, Adams revealed the architectural elegance of his music, the frictionless way it moves through verses and choruses almost completely devoid of the kind of lyrical specifics that ground a song in a place or a time. When Mellencamp sang in “Check It Out” of a “brand-new house in escrow,” you pictured a guy nervously signing papers in an office somewhere. Offering vague, detail-free accounts of various romantic encounters — “Let's Make a Night to Remember,” “This Time,” “I'm Ready” — Adams conjured no such scenes; you mostly pictured yourself hearing the songs on the radio when they were released.

That all-purpose universality is the dark art of pop songwriting, of course, and Adams fulfilled its promise Saturday night, piling up association after association for an audience entirely satisfied with a human jukebox. (He also sang beautifully, even during selections as well worn as “Heaven” and “[Everything I Do] I Do It for You.”)

Minus the built-in spectacle of an arena-sized show, though, Adams couldn't escape his own blankness. The harder you looked onstage to see who he was, the less you saw.

RELATED:

John Mellencamp talks 'No Better Than This' and Bob Dylan at the Grammy Museum

Album Review: John Mellencamp's 'No Better Than This'

Live review: Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp at Diamond Park, Lake Elsinore

-- Mikael Wood

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