Who said rock 'n' roll has to be a complex discipline? Not John Mellencamp. The Indiana-bred singer doesn't even believe in long rehearsals before making an album. He likes to keep it simple. He shows up at the studio with an acoustic guitar, plays new songs for his band, then they flesh out the arrangements and record them, posthaste.
"No one's heard the new songs until the day we record them. I've been doing it that way for years," says Mr. Mellencamp. "I don't want anyone to turn this into math. Music is math in a way -- so many beats per measure and all that -- but I don't want to think that way. If you listen to King Crimson records from the '60s, that's math. That's techno-math. But that's not me."
Mr. Mellencamp is back with a straight-ahead, new guitar-rock album, "Dance Naked," featuring a Top 10 hit in "Wild Night," a remake of Van Morrison's 1971 hit. Mr. Mellencamp's arrangement is simpler than Mr. Morrison's -- the sax line is gone, but the guitars are turned up -- and it's the perfect comeback single for the summertime.
" 'Wild Night' has always been one of my favorite songs," Mr. Mellencamp said in a recent interview from Bloomington, Ind., where he planned to do two warm-up shows before starting his tour (which brings him to Columbia tonight).
"The ironic thing is that young people think I wrote that song. Think about it. It's 23 years old. Even some of their parents were too young to hear it!" he says.
Another person who hadn't heard it was Me'Shell Ndegeocello, who sings a duet with Mr. Mellencamp on the new version. "I didn't know what I wanted to sing with her, but I just liked her spirit, so I asked her to come in. We don't use guests much. . . . So when Me'Shell showed up, I said, 'Hey, let's cut that old Van Morrison song!' "
The new album was cut in a mere 14 days -- rare by today's prolonged, fussbudget standards. "It's a fun record and there's very little instrumentation on it," says Mr. Mellencamp, whose past hits include the equally spare "Small Town," "Lonely Ol' Night," "Jack and Diane," "Hurts So Good" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."
The new disc also contains a bit of Mr. Mellencamp's shoot-from-the-hip social consciousness. The song "Too Much to Think About," for instance, talks about the overstimulation of modern life. "Some songwriters say, 'I think I've dried up,' " notes Mr. Mellencamp. "I tell them, 'Hey, just look out your window.' The world is very interesting -- and also very sad. I feel like I'm like a reporter for a newspaper. That's what I do in my songs."
Also new is "Another Sunny Day," which blasts the media for promoting fear and sensationalism. He sings: "I don't need no more prophets crying 'brother beware'/Just put some work in my hands and give me a dollar to spare."
Although Mr. Mellencamp has made some serious songs in his career, he doesn't think of himself as a "message" person. "Never let it be said that I was a deep thinker," he says. "I never saw myself that way. It always amused me that people would read so much into my records."
Meanwhile, Mr. Mellencamp is just glad to be back on tour, banging out his rock-edged sound with a band that includes two new members -- guitarist Andy York, from Jason & the Scorchers, and violinist/singer Mindy Johnston, who previously toured with Billy Joel.
As for post-tour plans, Mr. Mellencamp says he's signed with an vTC art gallery and hopes to display some of the 1,200 paintings he's done in a style influenced by the German Expressionists. He also expects to spend time with his new wife and new son, Hud.
What: Benefit concert for National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
When: Tonight. Pre-concert party starts at 6:30; concert starts at 8
Cost: $60-100; portion of ticket price is tax-deductible