Though he called it “the greatest rock room” and repeatedly mentioned how happy he was to be there, Tom Petty sounded simply uninspired playing Madison Square Garden on the second-to-last stop of his current tour. Petty and his longtime backing band the Heartbreakers seemed to be just going through the motions, though the near-capacity crowd that came to see them cheered wildly throughout their performance.
Petty’s set featured a number of songs from his latest album, The Last DJ, which has—with good reason—received mixed reviews. A few of the new songs, including the propulsive, catchy title track and the lovely “Can’t Stop the Sun”, were engaging enough, but others, like the formulaic, plodding “When a Kid Goes Bad” and the rambling, psychedelic “Lost Children”, felt flat.
Lyrically, more than a little hypocrisy taints the new songs, many of which lash out at the corporate control of popular music. Between songs, Petty boasted that his band does not accept corporate sponsorships. “This is our rock and roll band,” he commented. “We run it, and I don’t really see why we need advice from Pepsi.” On the other hand, Petty also admitted that “we’re all working for the man whether we like it or not,” and he and his band do in fact record for the corporate behemoth AOL Time Warner.
The lion’s share of Petty’s show consisted of his hits, vintage album tracks, and covers. The band’s performance of these songs, though they are vastly superior to the songs on The Last DJ, nonetheless failed to satisfy. Steve Ferrone, who replaced Stan Lynch as Petty’s drummer in 1994, contributed especially to the Heartbreakers’ weak performance. Known for his work with the Average White Band, Ferrone has played ably on Petty’s albums, but live in concert, he sounded mechanistic. When Ferrone stopped playing, the Heartbreakers sounded more alive. In fact, he sat out two of the night’s best performances, heartfelt renditions of “King’s Highway” and “Learning to Fly”.
Nearly every great band sounds somewhat like, or very similar to, what came before them, but such likenesses can be forgiven in light of the spirit each band puts into its music. Drained of their passion, even Petty’s best songs sounded derivative. Over the course of the evening, the fact that those songs contain much more than a little of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Byrds in them became not just evident, but glaringly obvious.
Weaknesses aside, Petty’s performance did have a few fine moments. “Yer So Bad” became a fun, country-flavored romp. In the middle of some songs, such as “The Waiting” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels”, the drums came out, the band stretched out, and Petty sang like he meant it. In his encore, Petty rolled through a rollicking version of Chuck Berry’s “Carol”, echoing the Rolling Stones. The show concluded with “American Girl”, a song so well-written that any band would have a hard time ruining it.
Maybe Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were just having an off night. Perhaps they would have played more passionately if they were supporting a stronger new album. In any event, they will hopefully turn in a better performance the next time they visit New York.