John Cougar Mellencamp's strengths and weaknesses were equally on display at the Baltimore Civic Center Saturday night. On the best songs from his recent album, "Scarecrow," Mellencamp fused anger and hope into blue-collar anthems that swept up the crowd in a hard-rocking momentum. In a black cowboy shirt and string tie, Mellencamp proved a charismatic performer: an intimate confidant one moment and a rousing rabble-rouser the next.
On his weaker songs, though, Mellencamp's flaws became readily apparent. He hasn't yet learned to compensate for a limited voice the way Dylan and Springsteen have. His band, which rocked very hard as a unit (thanks largely to the fine drummer Kenny Aronoff), lacked any distinctive soloists. The songs Mellencamp wrote without collaborator George M. Green suffer from woefully cliche'd lyrics. His pre-1985 songs are simplistic pop-rock without the edge of his new material.
Mellencamp's regular Indiana quintet was joined by a country fiddler, a synthesizer player and two soul singers. After two long sets of old hits and new songs, an oldies encore ranged from an embarrassing version of James Brown's "Cold Sweat" to a rollicking version of the Human Beinz' "Nobody But Me." In the blue-collar-rock sweepstakes, though, Mellencamp still lags behind John Cafferty and Tom Petty, much less Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen.