Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article was also published in the July 9 issue under the title “Dixie-inspired Petty energizes Summit crowd.”
Petty, cool customer of rock, warms up for Summit stand
By Marty Racine
Houston Chronicle — Monday, July 8, 1985
The man in black and red was again cool as ice but he never sounded hotter.
Tom Petty, buoyed by being down in Dixie on his “Southern Accents “tour, took enough inspiration from a cheering “Texas” crowd of 12,000 Sunday night at The Summit to finally get loose like he’d always threatened but never allowed in all the other shows I’ve seen him perform.
The Florida native liked this rebel yell. And he responded by melting that cool demeaner which throughout his career has distanced his brand of songwriter rock ‘n’ roll from the emotion you’ll receive from, say, Springsteen or Seger.
He and longtime band the Heartbreakers integrated “Southern Accents” conservatively within the set, starting out with such older material as “American Girl, You Got Lucky” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” before talking Dixie.
About four or five songs in, after shedding his black topcoat with a Dixie flag for a liner and when the “nerves had worn off” – Houston and Dallas are among a few select cities across the country which actually make a performer of this caliber nervous with anticipation – Petty announced that, now, “anything can happen.” He was at ease as I’d never seen him. (His previous show here was a full two years ago, and, unbeknown to the audience, he was suffering from a severe toothache.)
Augmented by the Soul Lips, his three-piece horn section, and the Rebellettes – Carroll Sue Hill and Pat Peterson – the Heartbreakers produced a full sound that coalesced as the evening grew hotter. The pacing was brilliant.
Lead guitarist Mike Campbell played the cool role with proper reserve, but his playing soared; drummer Stan Lynch has a very concise attack, needing little of the animation that most big-rock drummers rely upon. Bassist Howie Epstein, the newest Heartbreaker, doubled on vocal harmony and mandolin; and Benmont Tench, also an in-demand Los Angeles session man, alternated between organ and piano.
But it was this man Petty, a most mysterious figure who grants few interviews and whose career has been – or was – beset by contractual problems with record companies, who commanded the stage in his usual black duds and that patented Rickenbacker guitar.
Oh, he did change guitars on virtually every number, but he along with Peter Townshend has made the Rickenbacker – a difficult guitar to handle – a rock ‘n’ roll icon which few care or dare employ.
In keeping with that cool Petty image, the set Sunday night was draped in slate-colored vinyl, like marble, and filled with backlit light show that had a Confederate flag drape down as the band went into “Southern Accents” and “Spike”, the latter one of his best new songs on which sax man Jimmy Zavalo unleashed a great harmonica solo.
Other hard-edged renditions included “I Need To Know, Change of Heart” and “Refugee,” the best song off “Damn The Torpedoes”. Petty’s voice was strong and pure, and the sound system delivered it all.
Petty clearly was elated at being among Southern accents again, at the reception from this Houston crowd.
It was enough to get the mystery man, the cool customer of rock, warmed up.