Toward the end of John Mellencamp's two-hour-plus show at the Academy of Music on Monday, the Indiana rocker led his crack seven-piece band through "The Real Life," a song from 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, the first album he released that didn't use "Cougar" as part of his stage name.
"My whole life I've done what I'm supposed to do," the 59-year-old, gray-stubbled Rock and Roll Hall of Famer sang with gusto. "Now I'd like to maybe do something for myself / And just as soon as I figure out what that is, you can bet your life I'm gonna give it hell."
"The Real Life" is the song from the Mellencamp catalog that most clearly distills a theme - the quest for authentic, dignified, life-affirming experience - that's run through the career of the heartland hero, who started as a critically disparaged pop singer and has lately been telling anyone who'll listen that he's through being a "rock star."
That 3 1/2-decade quest has taken Mellencamp from the days of John Cougar hits like "Jack & Diane" - which he did in an abbreviated acoustic version - to No Better Than This, his death-obsessed, T Bone Burnett-produced 2010 album. Mellencamp built Monday's rarely dull show around the album.
No Better Than This was recorded in some of American vernacular music's most hallowed locales, including the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Ga., Sun Studios in Memphis, and the San Antonio hotel room where bluesman Robert Johnson recorded.
It's a typically earnest, naively romantic Mellencampian move, as if recording a band in mono around one microphone in a sacred room would not only amount to doing something for himself, but magically sprinkle fairy-dust genius on his music.
It didn't quite work out that way, but No Better Than This is still an upper-echelon Mellencamp album (as is its similarly stripped-down 2008 predecessor, Life, Death, Love and Freedom) largely because doomy songs like "No One Cares About Me" and "The West End" are invested with such unflinching conviction.
The studio versions of songs like the title cut of No Better Than This and "If I Die Sudden" are overly severe. And there's been a depressive tendency in Mellencamp's songs going back to "Jack & Diane," with its then callow-seeming declaration that "life goes on, long after the thrill of livin' is gone."
All that might make it sound like Monday's show must have been a bummer. Not so. No matter how much he fights it, and no matter how much his cigarette-scarred voice makes him sound like Walter Brennan, Mellencamp is still a charismatic front man and a seasoned entertainer.
And yep, a rock star. And while as American rock stars of a certain age go, Mellencamp may lack, say, the poetic grace of Bruce Springsteen, or the pop flair of Tom Petty, he's got his own set of strengths.
For one thing, there's that hardheaded tendency to write populist songs that sometimes awkwardly but always earnestly grapple with life-and-death ideas. "Jackie Brown," from 1989's Big Daddy, was a particularly heartrending example performed in a spare, plainspoken style.
And Mellencamp, more than his white-guy generational peers, has always made music that bears the influence of Motown and other African American '60s dance music. As he put it in the closing "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.": "Don't forget James Brown."
Mellencamp and band play with a bright, rhythmic dexterity that brings the music to life, even when their leader is fixating on his own mortality.
Instead of an opening act, the evening began with a movie: It's About You, a documentary about Mellencamp's 2009 tour and the recording of No Better Than This by Kurt Markus and his son Ian.
Bad idea. The movie, which, predictably, treats Mellencamp as if he were a god, has the deleterious effect of demystifying the concert to come. The first time I heard "Paper in Fire" on Monday, I remembered how much I liked it. The second time, I didn't like it as much.