Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers do their home state proud with blistering show in Estero
By Andrew Nathanson
The Palm Beach Post — May 2, 2012
ESTERO — A scant two days after playing to over 50,000 at New Orleans Jazzfest, Florida’s golden child Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers took a the trip to Estero and cooked up a first-rate show for his birth state. Mixing hits, blues, acoustic, and even some headbanging as he described it, the show had the feel of a hometown barbecue at the Florida Everblades’ Germain Arena, a few hours from the band’s Gainesville hometown.
The show was a polished gem in a medium arena of about 8,000, packed to the rafters full of screaming fans. It was big enough to provide the proper adulation for a star and band on stratospheric par with a Dylan and Springsteen, and small enough for a cozy ambiance. Mr. Petty might not be the pure poet like Dylan but his songs create visceral images as well as anyone out there.
Whereas many from the New York / New Jersey area will argue otherwise, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ shows are stronger than Springsteen’s and with superior talent — with the exception of the former Palm Beach resident Clarence “Big Man” Clemons (may he rest in peace). The Heartbreakers spread their wings wider for their frontman, who both culls
the talent and delves deeper into their capability.
Opening with “Listen to Her Heart,” Petty immediately gave the fans what they expected, quality art in an enduring song. Quickly he hit “I Won’t Back Down” and “Here Comes My Girl” off the breakout LP Damn the Torpedoes. Then they went into the Traveling Wilburys’ plum “Handle With Care”, done expertly. Originally recorded with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan, the band did a fine job of honoring the original lineup. Petty covered Harrison’s vocals sweetly and with all due respect, the same respect Heartbreaker Scott Thurston paid to the memory and superior vocal talents of Orbison, no small feat.
Doffing the jacket and going the rest of the way in vest and tie, Mr. Petty’s clean backdrop of velvet curtains and low-key lighting created an ambiance supporting the crystal sound and show. He opted to “Dig into (the album) Mojo with some romantic blues” with “Lovers Touch,” the stage drenched in red lighting, giving a Chicago-like ambiance. Throughout Mike Campbell bent and pulled notes from his guitar in tasty fashion. He amped this up a couple notches as they followed with a barnstorming rendition of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man,” appropriate as Diddley lived outside of Gainesville.
A master of tempo and show rhythm, Mr. Petty led the band and audience on a roller-coaster ride taking it down a beat stating, “I dedicate this with all our love to the great Levon Helm,” and proceeding with “Have Love, Will Travel.” The crowd volume swelled with the emphasized lines “Cheer for all the bad girls, and bad boys who play rock and roll.”
Coasting back up with “A love song. Everybody likes a love song. Even if your lover just packed up and left,” Petty rolled into “Free Falling.” Over dual Rickenbackers – that sweet Byrds-like tone – the crowd sang out the chorus while Petty vocalized over the 6-and 12-strings ringing out. “We’re having fun out here. You’ve got to love Florida,” he said over a lit venue and ear-piercing crowd standing and applauding.
For a guy and band hailing from dive bar Dub’s, named after its owner, it’s an incredibly talented group individually and collectively. Keys maestro Benmont Tench recorded with everybody: Rolling Stones, Dylan, Don Henley, Johnny Cash, U2, Stevie Nicks, Cheryl Crow, Ringo Starr, and Elvis Costello to name a few. Campbell squeezes and bends notes out of his guitar like fresh orange juice on a sunny day. His playing is a premier barbecue sauce – sweet brow n sugar, pepper and cayenne edge, and hickory flavored liquid smoke from his fiery fingers. Petty’s “oldest buddy and co-captain” layers it on so smooth, with a little crunch.
Rhythmically solid, original bassist Ron Blair and, as Petty said ‘Rolling on the drums,” Steve Ferrone (Average White Band, Eric Clapton, Slash) keep it locked and loaded. Ferrone’s timekeeping would make Swiss watchmakers want to throw down their tools and quit. Thurston’s an all-around talent who does it all well: guitar, keys, harmonica, and harmonious vocals, balancing out Petty perfectly.
Petty himself is a solid guitarist. During “Good to be King”, he worked the texture and tone on the lower registers on a Telecaster with great effect. They brought the song “down” so it felt like you were on a couch in a studio and then right back up to the peak of the ride with Campbell going off full-tilt, then back down with a reverb effect straight from 1966.
A perfect setup for a mini acoustic set starting with the North Florida country tinged “Time to Move On,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” and “Yer So Bad.” During “Wide Open” Campbell accompanied on mandolin and Tench tickled the ivories at high end of the keyboard.
Kicking into overdrive, Petty ditched his axe to belt it out for “I Should Have Known It” at full bore. He seemed to relish this heavy hitter off Mojo. Afterwards he said, “You’re too kind. I’m not even about to stop. You having fun?”
Rolling right into “Good Enough” from the same album the coaster hit full speed with Campbell tearing into it with Jimmy Page-esque riffs all over the neck and especially close to the pickups.
“Refugee” resulted in a massive standing ovation. Petty’s voice was a strong as ever and crisp even after a long set; he seems to warm up like the tubes and tone from a prime vintage guitar amp. Closing the set with “Running Down a Dream,” Campbell and Petty shredded it with dual Firebird guitars for the heavier driving tone they are known for. Mr. Petty seemed to take it all in, swamped by the audience adoration and reverence, keeping it simple with, “Thank you so much.”
The thunderous crowd, especially for a mid-sized venue, was at peak decibel level. With “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, Petty and Campbell again shredded it up like beef brisket cooked to tender perfection and some tasty guitar wine to go with it. “So good to see you one more time,” said the master chef. Finally rolling out the “American Girl” of the urban myth, with cars rolling by old 441 sounding like waves crashing on the beach, the song was greeted ecstatically by the crowd to close the show.
With friends, family, and friendly strangers intermingling, there was plenty of hand-shaking, dancing, beer drinking, and a party atmosphere with this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band playing in gator country. After the gig they would no-doubt go to ‘work’ and host all those in attendance going backstage. Fortunately for Mr. Petty, his mother-in-law is a genuinely warm person, so too her ‘posse’ of friends; there were a lot of passes in the audience so close to their original home.