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Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ star trip
By Lloyd Sachs
Rolling Stone #325 — September 4, 1980
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | Poplar Creek Music Theatre | Hoffman Estates, Illinois | June 18, 1980
Illuminated by a steady white spotlight, Tom Petty’s lean, chiseled face and shiny blond hair took on an almost angelic quality at Poplar Creek, the immaculate new open-air amphitheatre near Chicago. That image certainly jived with the adoring reception he got from the throng of fans in attendance: simply stated, not only did Petty and the Heartbreakers not have to prove it all night, they didn’t really have to prove it at all.
From the opening chords of “Shadow of a Doubt,” this performance was a classic star-turn, with enough faithfully recreated album hits to satisfy audience expectations, enough heels-against-ass leaps and Roadrunner scampers along the edge of the stage to keep the crowd fired up and enough mock theatrics to charm them. In comparison to the quasi-punk wise-guy antics Petty once brought to his concerts, the relative smoothless and shrewd control that now mark his shows are something of an improvement. But the charge hasn’t cut down much of the distance he maintains between himself and his followers. Referring to his second album, You’re Gonna Get It, Petty once remarked that it sounded “like there was a sheet of glass between us and whoeever we were singing to.” That appraisal also applied to the Poplar Creek show.
With the exception of a fairly uninteresting new ballad, “The Best of Everything,” and one or two other songs, this was the same set the band played on their winter tour. During their last visit to Chicago, Petty coaxed a soaring, electric performance out of the Heartbreakers, Guitarist Mike Campbell’s clean, cutting leads mixed with Benmont Tench’s street-tough organ work to make such old warhorses as “American Girl” and “Breakdown” sound vibrantly new. And Petty’s singing was so urgent he hardly seemed to come up for air.
This time, though, that kind of intensity didn’t arrive until the tail end of the show, when a spiried “Shout” brought things to life. Petty has a tendency to drag that R&B classic out too much, but on this occasion he kept it crisp and sweet. Then the band really cut loose, ripping through encores of “Strangered in the Night” and “Century City” with a playfulness that kept one from dwelling on how Sixties-derivative much of the Heartbreakers’ music is.
One of the evening’s highlights was the way in which Petty and Campbell traded licks from opposite ends of the stage: facing each other in the best of spirits, they endtered into a brief musical communion that transcended everything that had preceded it. Freed for a moment from thje star-making (and sustaining) machinery, Petty actually seemed to be having a good time.