Tom Petty Puts The ‘Accent’ On Work
By Gary Graff
Chicago Tribune — February 6, 1986
Welcome to the working world, Tom.
That’s not to say rock star Tom Petty is lazy. Every couple of years the Florida-born singer-songwriter-guitarist and his band, the Heartbreakers, release a creditable album, score a hit single or two and go on tour.
But compared to the Phil Collinses, the Bruce Springsteens, the Huey Lewises and even the average acts that churn out an album and tour each year, the Petty pace comes up short in the workhouse sweepstakes.
That is, until last spring, when the soft-spoken, limelight-shy Petty released the “Southern Accents” album, had a No. 1 hit in “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and staged a two-month American tour. Normally, that’s all we’d hear from Petty until 1987 or so.
Then he and the group played at the American Live Aid concert in Philadelphia on July 13. Two months later, they were onstage at Farm Aid, performing a set of their own and backing Bob Dylan.
Just in time for Christmas came a two-record live album, “Pack Up the Plantation.” An accompanying video filmed at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater soon will be released.
And then they’ll hit the road again, this time sharing the bill with Dylan in New Zealand, Australia and Japan, all the while writing new songs for that album that’s expected to come out in 1987.
“This is probably gonna go down as one of the busiest periods we’ve ever had,” Petty, 33, said during a break in his schedule. “I’m pleasantly overworked, and enjoying it.
“The big thing is we’ve been doing a lot of playing,” he added. “I don’t think the band has ever sounded as good as it is now, which is the exciting thing.”
The collaboration with Dylan is the obvious high point of the year. The project took root when the other members of the Heartbreakers–guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein and drummer Stan Lynch–worked with Dylan on his “Empire Burlesque” album, released last year.
Then, when it came time to play at Farm Aid — a benefit Dylan inspired with his remark about the plight of America’s family farmers during Live Aid — he went back to the Heartbreakers “rather than put another band together,” according to Petty.
“The main difference that set it apart from what he’d been doing is this is a real band rather than a bunch of session guys put together,” Petty said. “It was pretty casual, like we added a singer that has a lot of songs.
“Playing with Bob is pretty spontaneous, and we can communicate very well. Bob said to me once, ‘This band is kinda like talking to one guy.’ We pick up signals real fast.”
Petty said the shows would include both Dylan and Heartbreakers songs — including an acoustic set — as well as a selection of oldies culled from more than 100 songs the group has been
rehearsing. Besides the musical challenge, a side benefit of sharing the bill for Petty is not having to do all the singing.
“Actually, I’m really enjoying having some of the heat off,” he said.
“I can actually step over to the side and just play my guitar and not have to worry about it.”
If there’s any negative aspect to the Dylan-Heartbreakers tour it’s that it probably won’t be seen in America, due to commitments Dylan and Petty have after the tour finishes.
“I wouldn’t dare say we were gonna (play in America),” Petty said.
“We’ve talked about it. Everyone’s willing to do it, but there’s so many commitments we’d have to get out of and (Dylan would) have to get out of.”
In the meantime, America has plenty of Petty material to keep it happy.
“Pack up the Plantation” has already vaulted into Billboard’s Top 30, and Petty is being applauded for eschewing some of his biggest hits in order to include never-released cover versions of Byrds, Isley Brothers and Lovin’ Spoonful songs.
“I didn’t want it to come off like a Christmas present,” Petty explained. “I didn’t want to just take our biggest songs and line them up on the album like everybody else does with their live albums. I had a few things that had been lying around that I really liked for years and didn’t know how I was going to get them out. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
The “Southern Accents” tour, according to Petty, also gave him a chance to film his group at what he felt was a performing piece. Augmented by two female back-up singers, a three-piece horn section and a stage designed like a Southern plantation, the quintet was indeed in fine form, roaring through two- hour-plus shows with more energy than it had displayed on some of its previous tours.
“The reason we’re still together 10 years later is we’re actually getting better every year,” Petty said. “But I never know when it’s going to break up the next day, so I said, ‘I’d better get this one film.’
“I believe it has been a good year for us, thank the Lord, a very good year. We feel pretty confident right now. We have maybe a little bit too much going on right now, but we’re real happy doing it.”