Petty, Heartbreakers Purvey Emotional Sincerity at SPAC
By Mike Hochanadel
Schenectady Gazette — Tuesday, July 28, 1981
SARATOGA SPRINGS — When Tom Petty sang the line “Saratoga rain” for “Louisiana Rain” Sunday night at SPAC, he paid a sincere tribute to the 12,300 fans who braved a series of downpours to see him. “I’m impressed,” he said, squinting into the rain. So were his fans, by the best rock show this summer.
Opening act Split Enz tried to be the band in their song “Hard Act to Follow” but Petty blew away the competition — and his rain-soaked fans with passionate rock and roll.
Petty was almost unknown when he opened for Edgar Winters at the Palace in 1977, yet “star” was written all over him.
He had classic Chuck Berry moves onstage and a tight, basic-rock band. He had beautiful pop songs with great hooks and a convincingly innocent romanticism. He was hot, but also tender. He rocked, but his music expressed feelings he wasn’t afraid to show. Backstage, he said “I’m trying to play music that sounds alive on the radio.”
It worked: his music kept its innocence through “You’re Gonna Get It” and his 1979 breakthrough, “Damn the Torpedoes.” It sounded great all over the radio.
“Hard Promises,” a transitional LP with new, narrative songwriting, hasn’t matched the huge success of “Torpedoes,” but his well-deserved popularity onstage remains.
Petty opened explosively with “American Girl” then “Listen to Her Heart” and closed two hours later with classic-rock encores. These songs defined his style. His own music tapped the same current of exuberent romance that explodes in “Shout,” and the Byrds-Stones guitar sound of “American Girl” — his first hit — echoed through most of his music.
In between he mixed up rockers and ballads from his five LPs — acting the songs as well as singing them to express the direct emotional intensity behind the music. “I Got a Thing About You” rose and fell in successive codas that tiptoed gently around the melody — then stomped all over it. Petty sang with all the vulnerable, naive pride of teen love on “”Here Comes My Girl” and exploded with rage on “Breakdown.” At the end of the song, a drained-looking Petty rested his head on his arms draped over the mike-stand — a gesture of despair that perfectly symbolized the desperation of his lyrics.
This kind of theatrical touch — dramatic yet real — elevates Petty’s music into a rare class of rock artistry his earlier performances — and records — merely promised. It’s a territory very few musicians occupy, including the great soul and reggae singers, Springsteen and Joe Ely.
There are no virtuosos in the Heartbreakers, yet they are a first-class band since they play with such spirit and connect so directly with Petty’s classic-rock moves. Like the Stones, the Heartbreakers roll on a huge drum sound — Stan Lynch’s drumming is enormous — and punchy rhythm guitar. Petty and Mike Campbell — whose repetivie leads are less convincing than his busy chord-riffing — weave a tough Byrds/Stones texture. Lynch adds expert harmonies to Petty’s lead vocals and keyboard man Benmont Tench plays more prominently than in the past — perhaps reflecting the influence of “Hard Promises” co-producer Jimmy Iovine who loves keyboard. Their no-frills arranging — underlining Petty’s hook-laden pop melodies — echoes Creedence Clearwater Revival in its directness and power. There is no lack of nuances — the quick tempo changes of “King’s Road” and the way Petty aptly substitued “Saratoga rain” for “Louisiana Rain” Sunday night — but no phoniness at all.
Split Enz opened with 45 minutes of the very clever pop that made them a huge success in their native Australia before “True Colors” (A&M) broke them in the States last year.
Ironic songwriting and edgy, electronic grooves that echo Roxy Music and David Bowie place Split Enz squarely in the modernist camp, as did the garish rockabilly suits they wore at SPAC on Sunday.
Enz’ songwriter Tim Finn sang beautifully over a metronomic jangle of guitar and electronic keyboards. The music from “True Colors” and “Waiata” sounded faster and emotionally more compelling onstage than on their often icy records — even though Finn’s ironic neo-robot posturing added an ambiguous note of machinery at play.
Surprisingly the match-up proved to be a very effective one. Petty’s sincerity rang especially true after Split Enz’ coyly contrived ironies, and the impressive performing skill shown by the New Zealand band really put the Heartbreakers on their toes. Both bands featured extraordinary vocals over powerful, simple grooves. Excellent sound engineering delivered this fine concert with satisfying impact and a clarity in the vocals rare in concerts of such large scale.