Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
From a distance, Tom Petty and Jackson Browne appear relatively unchanged. Like in their ‘70s SoCal rock heyday, each sports a boyish, shaggy haircut. But when you look closely at their images on the venue’s big-screen, you immediately notice that these familiar hairstyles sit atop undeniably wrinkled faces. Granted, it’s impossible to completely stop the physical process of aging, but when it’s played right, music can make time seem to stand still. And tonight, Petty and Browne each exemplified the mysteriously timeless beauty of great rock & roll.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers weren’t supporting a new studio CD with this tour, so the group took the liberty of doing whatever they wanted to. This meant that the show was almost all meat, with very little stuffing. Appropriately enough, Petty opened his set with “Listen to Her Heart”, and then proceeded to take his own advice by following his heart wherever it directed him. Not every song was a certified hit, yet very few of these selections were unfamiliar or unwanted.
The group did play the somewhat fresh “Melinda”, which is taken from the recent Live In Concert: Soundstage DVD. This particular tune gave keyboardist Benmont Tench the opportunity to show what he can do, especially within the song’s jazzy textures. It also offered Petty the chance to down a cool drink and have a smoke. The group later played a smokin’, garage-y version of The Animals’ “I’m Cryin’”, which is found on the same DVD. And speaking of covers, Petty added hilarious, self-deprecating spoken word sections to his encore on the old the Them song, “Gloria”.
One of the advantages of seeing Tom Petty live is that you, more often than not, walk away with a renewed appreciation for his Heartbreakers. This show’s moment of enlightenment arrived during a blistering take on “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” where guitarist Mike Campbell squatted down at the front of the stage and squeezed out those familiar sustained electric sparks. Although the band’s recordings are restrained at times, in concert these players let loose. Even on songs without a lot of soloing, such as “Honey Bee”, a powerful group dynamic is applied to the tune’s rumbling, melodic growl. One imagines that these players could also thrill with their individual skills if they really wanted to. But the real beauty of The Heartbreakers is their tightness as a unit. They truly sound like one instrumental voice.
Petty’s hairstyle may have remained, but his performance has changed significantly over the past few decades. Whereas he once bounced up and down in time to the music, he now appears to drift and glide across the stage in slow motion. Heck, he looks about as relaxed as Perry Como these days! But, then, even when he had a little more of a spring in his step, he still retained a kind of Floridian laidback-ness. And his nonchalance might just exemplify his confidence. Let’s face it, anybody with the Heartbreakers as his backing band must feel ready to take on the whole world.
Like Springsteen and Dylan before him, Petty has always been more concerned with music than flash. Thus, his stage show isn’t what you might term a visual cornucopia. One of the few concessions he makes to visual stimulation is a jagged, jigsaw-puzzle-like video screen, which is mounted behind the band. It sometimes spotlights multiple Heartbreakers at the same time. And when the band got to the semi-psychedelic “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, the stage lights went into strobe mode for a dizzying effect. But for the most part, this was mainly a man, his band, and their songs.
Although it was a hit-packed set, there were still a few significant Petty songs left out. That’s because the man has so many darn good tunes. Nevertheless, favorites like “The Waiting”, “Even The Losers”, “I Need to Know”, “Straight Into Darkness”, and “Rebels” were greatly missed. And this may sound like blasphemy to fans of Petty’s more commercial tunes, but I’ve always thought that lightweight songs such as “Free Fallin’” and “Learning To Fly” were overrated, and only served to drag down the momentum of a Petty performance. But when everybody stood up, even for these slow-ies, it was clear that the demand remains high.
Wildflowers may not have been one of Petty’s biggest commercial successes, but he played a lot of those songs. In addition to “Honey Bee” he also pulled out “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “You Wreck Me”. Of course, it would have been even better if he’d also dusted off “It’s Good to Be King”, too. But you can’t have everything, right?
Petty’s final encore was “American Girl”, closing the show on a jangle-y note exactly the way the evening opened. One girl in the parking lot was spotted before the show wearing a homemade shirt that read, “Petty Fetish”. And to some extent, these words describe our attraction to Heartbreakers music: It may not be continually evolving and mutating the way, say, Neil Young’s or Bob Dylan’s music is, but once you’re hooked on its soulful purity, it’s nearly impossible to break away.
Seeing Jackson Browne’s name on this bill as the opener was too good to be true. Sure, Browne and Petty are part of the same SoCal musical brotherhood, but Jackson is a certified headliner in his own right. Nevertheless, Browne put in a powerful, if abbreviated, hour-long set. About half of the songs were album tracks from his last few CDs, but his Latin-y, anti-war machine rant of “Lives In The Balance” is just as relevant to today’s Iraqi war, as it was to the Nicaraguan business back in the ‘80s. Browne closed his show with the big hits of “The Pretender”, “Runnin’ On Empty”, and “Dr. My Eyes”, before encoring with “I Am A Patriot”.
If Jackson Browne and Tom Petty ever decide to spike their hair a bit and get with the modern fashion era, that would be just fine. But they better not ever screw with the beautiful consistency of the music. If they did, we fetishists might just rebel.