Tom Petty’s Southern pride takes root in songs, album
By Bruce Westbrook
Houston Chronicle — Thursday, April 17, 1986
Like so many of today’s rock ‘n’ rollers, Tom Petty has been making a big thing of his roots lately. In his case, though, roots rock doesn’t mean nationalism, but regionalism.
Petty is a Southern boy, you see, hailing from Gainesville, Fla. So naturally, he’s started wearing a Confederate flag stitched inside his long, old-style Southern coat. And his songs have titles such as ” Southern Accents” and “Rebels.” And he has an album called “PackUp the Plantation.” And on occasion, he even adds a country twang to his already nasal vocals while his lead guitarist sits down to play slide.
Indeed, Petty is such a dedicated Southerner that he lives in Los Angeles.
Well, that “is” Southern California. And it’s doubtful he could have fashioned as successful a career from Florida as he has in La La Land, where he’s recorded million-selling albums, collaborated with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Dave Stewart and become a semisuperstar.
And it’s in Los Angeles – not Kissimmee – that Petty and his band, The Heartbreakers, perform their first concert for the screen. Also titled “Pack Up the Plantation” (the album of the same name is its soundtrack), the show exists in two forms: as a 96-minute, 16-song videocassette from MCA Home Video (Hi-Fi, $29.95) and as a one-hour, 10-song edit of the same show premiering at 7 p.m. Friday on Showtime and repeating several times through mid-May.
The show was filmed last August over the final two nights of Petty’s ’85 tour. The setting was Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater, and the crowd was a bonkers bunch of Petty loyalists.
Directing was Jeff Stein, the man best known for helming The Cars’ award-winning “You Might Think” video. Stein does a terrific job here. Shooting on film, not video, he makes one of the best-looking concerts we’ve seen on screen. The lighting and photography are superb. There is a minimum of onstage visual effects, but who needs them?
Petty and his four-man band are backed by a three-man horn section and two female singers. The latter are largely relegated to go-go dancing. The sax, trumpet and trombone player are reduced to glitzy incongruities. That leaves the Heartbreakers, a workmanlike but unexciting group. They’re cohesive and tight enough – they’ve been together for a decade – but the spark and rawness and intensity that make for rock ‘n’ roll at its best just aren’t there.
Petty has some fine material, though, particularly his earliest songs, which Showtime’s edit includes. Recent work, such as “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, may have a nice commercial ring and make for good videos, but Petty is at his best playing the hard-edged, straight-ahead “I Need to Know” and “American Girl.”
On some other songs – “Spike, Breakdown” – he slows things down self-indulgently, smirking overconfidently at the crowd, leisurely inviting sing-alongs and stretching out already thin material to twice its recorded length. But the show ends on a nice, nostalgic note with two ’60s songs: “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Little Bit o’ Soul.” The first is by a band to whom Petty owes a lot for his early sound, The Byrds. The second is from one-hit wonders The Music Explosion.
Petty’s no one-hit wonder. He’s built a loyal if not massive following with some good songs, well-crafted albums and a fair share of eclecticism – not to mention Southern pride.
We have a feeling, though, that the show to really watch for is Petty and the Heartbreakers with Bob Dylan, who toured Australia and New Zealand together earlier this year.
A concert from that tour will appear on Home Box Office soon. Petty and Dylan also are teaming for an American tour this summer, and Houston is on the schedule, June 20.