Tommy at the War Memorial
by Jack Hunter
The Oswegonian — September 26, 1991
Last Wednesday’s concert at the War Memorial in Syracuse was my fourth time seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Recalling the most recent show I saw, which was on the Full Moon Fever tour, I wasn’t anticipating much. On that tour they played what were once unique arrangements of their songs but had long since lost any spontaneity and I saw the band simply going through the motions.
One of the unique aspects of a great rock ‘n’ roll band is that the whole is greater than the individual parks and if the chemistry is right, any given night can be a mystical experience. This in mine, I started the 45 minute drive south.
Naturally, the radio had a special which featured interviews and songs — the type of thing to put you over the edge if you’re still thinking about picking up a ticket. On the broadcast the band was saying that they were really going to be pushing the songs from their new release Into The Great Wide Open. This, of course, is something we’ve heard too many times and gives us premonitions of a boring show. Fortunately, though, exactly the opposite was true.
The band took the stage and ripped through two new songs, neither of which have been released as singles. No matter, though, as raw energy and inspired playing took the place of familiarity. Tom had to wait with the band several moments for the crowd to quiet down before introducing the next song. This lapse also gave time to take in the stage set.
Omnipresent was an enormous tree with a staircase leading up to a door at the top and limbs that resembled human appendages. Clustered around the tree was a totem pole, refrigerator and old lamps. Chandeliers hung not only over the band but over the audience as well. “This next one is one of the best three-chord songs I ever wrote.” “Free Fallin'” was a mass sing-along, particularly “down Ventura Boulevard.”
Tom introduced the band and said that drummer Stan Lynch was going to sing the next song. From out of the tree a rat the size of a man descended the staircase dressed in a white tuxedo. Tom was presented, on a silver platter, with a harmonica and guitarist Mike Campbell ripped into the vaguely familiar intro of the 60’s classic “Psychotic Reaction.” This cover saw the band at their peak for the night. The frantic harp and guitar breaks eventually led into an increasingly faster and faster tempo that became impossible to keep time to through mere hand clapping and had the crowd dancing wildly.
Another highlight from the evening included a short acoustic segment that had Tom on a 12 string and Mike Campbell playing mandolin. They played “Listen to Her Heart,” “American Girl,” and one verse from “Breakdown.” This was a welcome change for those songs which we’ve heard all too many times on the radio. For those of you who began craving something a little more up tempo though, we didn’t have long to wait.
The entire band exited the stage — except for Mike Campbell who staggered slowly forward, looking like rock ‘n’ roll incarnate with frizzy black hair and perfectly scuffed riding boots, slung around his neck was yet another unbearably cool guitar. He started playing a repetitive riff and thanks to digital delay, was able to set the guitar on a stand while the music continued. He repeated the process with another guitar before finally picking up a third and laying into “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The psychedelic bridge that closes the song featured Tom under strobe lights, being chased around the stage by caricatures of Presidents Nixon and Reagan and Bush. He was able to repel them with an enormous peace symbol. The crowd loved it.
Other standouts from the night were the two new songs “Learning to Fly” and “Out in the Cold.” From Full Moon Fever they played “Yer So Bad” (which is great in concert), “Running Down a Dream,” “Love Is a Long Road,” and “I Won’t Back Down.” The show closed with a raucous version of “Refugee” and the band returned to the stage to play “The Waiting” and another cover “I’m Makin’ Some Noise” which was a typical call and response between Tom and the audience but also a delightful way to end a solid show.
Newcomer Chris Whitley opened the show and proved just how bad production is in the ’90s. His live sound was initially better than his glossy debut album, “Living With the Law.” He is a competent and unique slide guitarist with a great voice. Most of his tunes were steeped in the blues but, fortunately, he and his band concentrated more on their thick rhythms than on flashy soloing. Hopefully, we’ll hear more from Chris Whitely in the future.