Petty delivers a psychotic reaction
By Thor Christensen
The Milwaukee Journal — September 9, 1991
The word “psychedelic” is bandied about so often in rock ‘n’ roll that it has become almost meaningless. But Mike Campbell, guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, came up with a sound so tough and mysterious Saturday night at the Marcus Amphitheater it virtually defined the P word.
Touring behind their latest album, “Into the Great Wide Open,” Petty and the Heartbreakers paid homage to the psychedelia era with an “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired stage set: candle-lit chandeliers hung over the stage and from the amphitheater roof while a dragon-man bearing a harmonica emerged from inside a massive oak tree.
Petty’s theatrical acid trip reached its climax as masked men dressed like George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon chased the singer around the strobe-lit stage. Petty fought them back with an oversize neon-pink peace symbol, and escaped his nightmare unscathed. Good trippy fun, but the props and antics had nothing on Campbell’s surreal guitar playing.
Melding blues with distorted free-form sounds, the bushy-haired guitarist put bite into new tunes (“Kings Highway,” “Out in the Cold”), old hits (“I Won’t Back Down,” “You Got Lucky”) and a spirited remake of “Psychotic Reaction” (the 1966 Yardbirds knockoff by one-hit-wonder Count Five).
Thousands of today’s bands try to recreate psychedelic rock. Unlike most of them, Campbell was subtle and savvy enough that his playing never sounded like a parody of the style.
Campbell wasn’t the only musician in peak form. Petty, his Dylan whine in full bloom, performed with a vengeance that was often missing on the folk-minded “Into the Great Wide Open” LP and its predecessor, “Full Moon Fever.”
True, he did offer sweet acoustic versions of “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart” and Van Morrison’s lullaby “I’m Tired, Joey Boy.” But he devoted the end of the show to reclaiming the hard-driving style he’d made his name with in the late ’70s. Frenzied versions of “Makin’ Some Noise,” “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” made his recent pop hit “Learning to Fly” sound formulaic by comparison.
While Petty’s music drew on such ’60s sources as the Byrds and Beatles, opening act Chris Whitley traveled back another 30 years to the eerie Delta blues of Robert Johnson.
Alternating between an ethereal falsetto and a low rumble of a voice, Whitley spun gritty vignettes about restless characters in rural America, and echoed them with some of the most haunting acoustic slide guitar this side of Ry Cooder.