Pop: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Jersey
By Robert Palmer
The New York Times — August 1, 1981
Most arena rock concerts aren’t exactly concerts. They are carefully staged spectacles in which the music often takes a back seat to special effects and showmanship. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, whose two most recent albums have won them a following large enough to fill arenas and stadiums, have announced their opposition to this trend. They are, in Mr. Petty’s words, a group for “people who just want to hear a rock-and-roll band.”
Mr. Petty’s Thursday evening performance at the Byrne Meadowlands Arena in Rutherford, N.J., was his first in the area since the release of his album “Hard Promises,” which has cemented the reputation he established with last year’s superb “Damn the Torpedoes.” When Mr. Petty visited New York during his “Damn the Torpedoes” tour, he played in smaller halls like the Palladium, and one wondered how his relatively unassuming show, which is conspicuously lacking in smoke bombs, snazzy lighting and the other paraphernalia of big-time rock, would fare in a larger hall.
One needn’t have worried. The Heartbreakers were even looser and more informal in the Meadowlands arena, which is roughly the size of Madison Square Garden but has much better acoustics, than they had been at the much smaller Palladium.
Because he writes and sings the Heartbreakers’ songs, Mr. Petty is the group’s focus, and he has learned to command attention by prowling a large stage the way he used to pace restlessly across club and theater stages. But the Heartbreakers have been playing together since their teenage years in Florida, in the 1960’s, and if they are “just” a rock-and-roll band, at this point they are certainly one of the best.
The group’s traditionalism is the first thing that sets it apart. There are no synthesizers or fancy electronic gear in this group, just ringing six-and 12-string guitars, drums, organ and grand piano. But this isn’t just a traditional rock-and-roll band; it’s a spectacularly clean and precise one. The guitar parts dovetail perfectly, the rhythms cut and thrust without ever becoming overbearing, and the group singing, which is largely the work of Mr. Petty, the drummer Stan Lynch and the keyboard player Benmont Tench, adds a layer of rangy harmonic richness on top.
Mr. Petty seemed relaxed and glad to be back on the road Thursday. In fact, he was so relaxed that he tended to undercut the emotional impact of his more serious numbers with lighthearted clowning. But ultimately his good humor was contagious, and as the band neared the end of its performance with a piledriver rendition of “Refugee,” perhaps Mr. Petty’s most anthemic number, there could be no doubt that this was stirring, first-class rock-and-roll.
Two duets featuring Mr. Petty and a special guest, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, emphasized the power behind the Heartbreakers’ deceptively light touch. Miss Nicks was in strong voice, but her singing fluttered tremulously on the music’s surface while Mr. Petty’s harder vocals cut through like a knife.