Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Still Amazing After All These Years

There was a moment 40 minutes into the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night that exemplified why the sold-out crowd was watching one of the premier bands in rock and roll: The large video screen captured Petty with a giant life-is-great smile on his face while wandering the stage and strumming his guitar. So what? Well, the moment occurred while opening act Steve Winwood was on the stage performing two of his classic hits (“Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Gimme Some Lovin’”) with the Heartbreakers.

That Petty, an expressive and engaging front man himself, could slip into the roll of rhythm guitarist/backup singer so easily is what makes this outfit so great. Yes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have had a string of hits. And yes, the band is a proud member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, at its core, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is simply a great rock and roll band.

And yet, at the same time, there are few groups that have had a career like this one. Launched in 1976, four of the five original members (Petty, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bass player Ron Blair, in his second tour of duty, having replaced Howie Epstein after he succumbed to his drug problems) were on stage for the show. How many bands, while at the top of their popularity, would take two years off to tour as the backing band for another artist (as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did for Bob Dylan in 1986-87)? How many bands from that era can still sell out Madison Square Garden, without the benefit of first breaking up, taking time off, and then embarking on a reunion tour? And how many bands can boast a 32-year long history of consistently making music and hitting the road to play for large audiences, with no long hiatuses?

I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live for the first time in 1984, and I can honestly say that 24 years later, they haven’t lost a beat. While the band members can see 60 coming up in the not-too-distant future, they haven’t surrendered to Father Time. There has been no movement towards mellowing the band’s sound; just the opposite, in fact. Campbell only picked up his mandolin once all night, and the set was heavy on rockers, those familiar to casual fans (“Refugee,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “American Girl”) and those not (“Honey Bee,” “You Wreck Me,” “Cabin Down Below”). The quiet moments were few and far between, although a nearly acoustic “Learning to Fly” was nothing short of mesmerizing.

It was as if the band members had made a concerted effort to rock out. Tench’s piano chords propelling the chorus of “Free Fallin’” surged forward with a ferocity that shouldn’t work for such a sweet song, but did. Ditto for the driving beats of drummer Steve Ferrone (the “new” guy, since he joined the band as recently as 1995, four years after Scott Thurston was added as an additional guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist), who seemingly defies the laws of physics by playing with the force of John Bonham while maintaining the still upper body of Charlie Watts. Ferrone’s powerful strikes pushed quieter songs like “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down” to new levels.

And Campbell is simply one of the greatest and most distinctive rock guitar players of all time. He is equally comfortable shredding, like on the solos in “Refugee,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” “You Wreck Me,” and “American Girl,” as he is providing soulful licks to mid-tempo numbers like “Saving Grace” and the Traveling Wilburys hit “End of the Line.” Campbell is one of the few guitar players whose sound is so signature, you can pick him out easily when you hear a song he plays on (think of his work on Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer,” which he co-wrote). But, as I said, Campbell showed up Tuesday night ready to rock, and he is the true power behind the Heartbreakers.

What was fascinating about the show was how after all these years, this was essentially the same Heartbreakers that emerged in 1976 as proponents of classic American rock and roll, with the same unearthly ability to play perfectly together, as if they had some kind of mental telepathy going on between them. And the members of the Heartbreakers play with such joy, like there is nowhere they’d rather be than on stage making music. Petty certainly plays up the arms-stretched, drink-in-the-adoration-of-his-fans pose way beyond the level anyone should, but it feels okay, because, at a base level, it seems sincere.

And, of course, Petty is adored, with the crowd breaking into “Pet-ty!” chants between songs. The fans are part of a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live experience. They sing along with more lyrics than most of the members of the band, and for a vast majority of the night, they were on their feet, moving along to the music, just how the band seemed to like it.

Even after 32 years, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is still a force to be reckoned with. The band’s two-hour set was completely satisfying, mixing hits, album tracks, obscurities (like “Sweet William,” which was released only on a European EP) and a cover (Van Morrison’s “Mystic Eyes”), and yet when it was over, you realized you could easily make up a second two-hour show of songs that got radio play but didn’t make Tuesday night’s set (just to name a few examples, there was no “Breakdown,” “I Need to Know,” “Listen to Her Heart,” or anything from “Hard Promises” or “Long After Dark”).

But a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show is not about the hits. It’s about watching one of the great straight-forward rock and roll bands of all time excel at what it does best, entertaining a capacity crowd of devotees. When Petty said, “I don’t think there is a better room for rock and roll music than this one,” I’m sure he meant it. But I couldn’t help thinking that any room is a great room for rock music when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is playing there.

Steve Winwood opened the show, playing a mix of music from his previous bands Traffic and Blind Faith, his 1980s solo career, and his new album “Nine Lives.” Trading off between guitar and keyboards, Winwood’s voice was just as perfect as ever, hitting the high notes as easily as he did when he was a teenager in the Spencer Davis Group 40 years ago. He even showed off his underrated guitar chops with an amazing solo at the end of the Traffic classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Backed by an eclectic four-piece band (two of whom were percussionists), Winwood provided a nice survey of his diverse, interesting and productive career. He was a good fit for a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show.

Set List
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Madison Square Garden
Tuesday June 17, 2008

You Wreck Me
Last Dance With Mary Jane
I Won’t Back Down
Even the Losers
Free Fallin’
Cabin Down Below
Sweet William
End of the Line
Can’t Find My Way Home (sung by Steve Winwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (sung by Steve Winwood)
Saving Grace
Face in the Crowd
Honey Bee
You Don’t Know How It Feels
Learning to Fly
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Runnin’ Down a Dream
Mystic Eyes
American Girl