Rock: Tom Petty at the Byrne Arena
By Robert Palmer
The New York Times — April 4, 1983
Tom Petty complained that he had a cold at the Brendan Byrne Arena on Friday, but it didn’t prevent him from connecting again and again with an affectionate, wildly enthusiastic audience. The word ”affectionate” is not often appropriate for a loud, celebratory rock crowd, but Mr. Petty has a knack for writing songs that express, in a straightforward manner, his listeners’ most basic attitudes and emotions – a dissatisfaction with job and hometown, a deep-seated need to believe that love really can conquer all.
Some rock singer-songwriters who have become arena-rock icons go on stage wearing average-Joe work clothes, they fashion songs that deliberately make such connections, and all too often they simply seem manipulative. Mr. Petty tends to affect a kind of mid-1960’s mod look to go with the mid-60’s folk-rock flavoring in his music, but he doesn’t even seem to try to get audiences to identify with him by making their concerns his own. He simply has the touch.
He also has a band that builds on a solid foundation of 60’s rock verities to make thrillingly up-to-date music. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been outstanding rock-and-roll craftsmen since the mid-70’s, when they made their first recordings and national tours. But in those days, their Byrds-influenced vocal and guitar harmonies seemed rather more derivative and lightweight.
In the intervening years, Mr. Petty and his band have honed their individual and ensemble musicianship to a razor-edge sharpness. And they have artfully updated their original sound,
making it relevant to a generation that was still in playpens and strollers when the Byrds recorded ”Eight Miles High.”
Mr. Petty and the Heartbreakers make their instruments sing as melodiously as their voices. If they still sound a bit like the original Byrds at times, it’s mostly because they share with that band, and few others, a thorough understanding of how to employ guitar harmonics. Mr. Petty’s rhythm guitar and Mike Campbell’s fluid lead playing blend to create layer upon layer of chiming, pealing overtones, making a sound that rings out like a belfry full of bells. Benmont Tench adds subtle chording and melodic figures with his piano and organ, and the rhythm section of Howie Epstein on bass and Stan Lynch on drums provides a firm but supple bottom. An additional percussionist, added for this tour, provides another layer of sound and rhythmic syncopation.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have won an immense, passionately loyal audience by working hard at their music and making it better. They have done it without hype and without pandering, and for a rock-and-roll band in these formula-prone times, that is singularly impressive.