Free Fallin’ at the Metro Centre
By Stephen Cooke
Halifax Chronicle-Herald — June 1, 2012
Let’s just cut to the chase and state the obvious: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play one of the greatest rock and roll shows you’re ever going to see, and on Thursday night Halifax got to see it in all its glory.
Admittedly, it’s a tough call when you consider some of the acts that have rolled through the Metro Centre over the years, from Neil Young and John Fogerty to Pearl Jam and the Pixies. But pound for pound, in terms of the volume of hits, natural charisma and the wonder of a band whose members intermesh so effortlessly after playing together for decades, Petty and his cohorts score as high as anybody.
And yes, I won’t be the first reviewer of this act to note that the waiting is in fact the hardest part, but it’s especially true when this is the band’s first venture to these parts in its 36-year history. They made up for lost time though with over two-and-a-half hours of songs that have become ingrained in our psyches and part of the broader fabric of pop culture.
If you’ve ever had I Won’t Back Down stuck on an endless loop in the back of your mind for days on end, you’ll know what I mean. Amazingly, that song, the second biggest single of Petty’s career, got tossed into the set three songs in, after the early track Listen to Her Heart and the fine mid-’90s Wildflowers single You Wreck Me. At that point I stopped trying to second guess where this show was going to take us and just sat back to enjoy the ride.
And what a ride it was. The Heartbreakers came on with no formalities, and played without any bells and whistles apart from a quartet of video screens above the stage and the usual racks of moving lights. No risers, no pyro, no catwalk. Heck, these guys still plug into their amps using actual guitar cords rather than wireless units, talk about old school. No, these five musicians were here to play some great rock and roll tunes to make you dance, sing along, and reminisce. If you want all that other stuff, you could have gone to Hedley, or make travel plans to see Nickelback in Moncton.
“We finally made it to Halifax,” grinned Petty as 11,000 voices hollered back in a deafening greeting. “We’ve got a lot of songs planned for you tonight, hope you don’t have to be home early.”
Nobody was going anywhere, least of all Petty, who spread his arms in triumph after leading the singalong to Won’t Back Down, leaving little doubt he was enjoying himself too. “We’re going to dig deep into the albums, and do some of the deep tracks,” he told the crowd, piquing the interest of longtime fans and those who were seeing him play for the umpteenth time.
It took him a while to get there though, since the next song was one of Damn the Torpedoes’ singles from 1979, Here Comes My Girl with its stately piano part by master keyboardist Benmont Tench, matching notes with guitarist Mike Campbell, followed by the Travelling Wilburys’ Handle With Care, which sent the crowd into an absolute tizzy. I guess that was one most people didn’t expect to hear at a Petty concert; frankly, George Harrison and Roy Orbison could have walked on stage at that point, and it couldn’t have got them any more worked up.
Although it was Petty in the spotlight, impressively slim in a pinstripe suit, black velvet vest and red cravat, it was as much of a joy to watch Campbell work his magic. Introduced by his boss as “my partner, my co-captain and our lead guitarist,” the singer’s longtime collaborator coloured every song with just the right tone.
He could make the steel slide on his Stratocaster sing like a Southern angel on The Best of Everything (touchingly dedicated to Levon Helm), or toss off an explosive blues rock riff on his sunburst Les Paul while Petty shook his maracas like a mad shaman on the early Fleetwood Mac tune Oh Well. Campbell doesn’t play with overt flash or virtuosity, but there’s intelligence and heart invested in every lick.
Pretty much every song shows off the band’s ability to work together as a crack unit, but one of the most impressive was the 10-minute spaced out odyssey It’s Good to Be King from Wildflowers, with Campbell slipping in and out of the tune like mercury and Petty playing a solo on his cream-coloured Telecaster using the Neil Young playbook and making he most out of the fewest notes. A couple near me decided to take this opportunity to make out, and really it’s hard to argue with that decision, but the moment was a masterful example of building and releasing tension, before drummer Steve Ferrone let all hell break loose and Campbell was slashing at the string on his Les Paul again.
After a beautifully rearranged Learning to Fly and “a little headbanging” Led Zeppelin-esque blues rock from the latest album Mojo, the band was heading for home with the 1979 breakout hit Refugee and the snarling highway riff of Running Down a Dream, with Petty and Campbell looking totally badass sporting twin vintage Gibson Firebird guitars.
One of the pairs best double guitar parts soon followed in the encore’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance, as the smell of the song’s namesake quickly filled the air, before Petty strapped on his distinctive Rickenbacker 12-string one last time for American Girl. The song has lost none of its feeling of that first rush of love in over 35 years, but then the houselights came up, and the feeling was gone again.
I’m not sure what I can say about gospel institution The Blind Boys of Alabama, who opened in place of an unavailable Jimmy Cliff, that I didn’t say when they played the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium four years ago, but it’s comforting to know they haven’t lost their power to move crowds either.
As a recent convert to the HBO crime series The Wire, I found their rendition of the Tom Waits-penned theme song Way Down in the Hole burning a hole into my soul, and the blend of their deep, resonant voices on a mashup of Amazing Grace and House of the Rising Sun was nothing less than spine-tingling, especially when founding member Jimmy Carter let out a wail that could fill the Dartmouth Sportsplex and the Halifax Forum as well as the Metro Centre.
Now that’s jubilation.
Listen to Her Heart
You Wreck Me
I Won’t Back Down
Here Comes My Girl
Handle With Care
The Best of Everything
Damage You’ve Done
It’s Good to Be King
Crawling Back to You
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Shoulda Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
Mary Jane’s Last Dance