A Mellowed-out Tom Petty Strums At The Spectrum
By Tom Moon
The Philadelphia Inquirer — September 18, 1991
Give Tom Petty this much credit: He’s not one of those rock stars who pretends he’s still 19 years old.
Monday night at the Spectrum, before a near-capacity crowd that accepted everything he did as wonderful, Petty presided over a sonorous strum-along that had all the energy of a sewing circle.
The 37-year-old rocker dared to show that he’s mellowed, and that his recent Jeff Lynne-produced efforts lack the fire (not to mention the originality) of his earlier material. Moving from one medium-tempo snooze to another, he served up 90 minutes of pleasant, slow-motion rock that included all the crowd-pleasers but failed to tax his excellent band of 15 years, the Heartbreakers, or to create the faintest impression of a ruckus.
It’s not clear what sort of easy-listening Petty is transitioning to, but if this show was any indication, it’s the kind that relies more on orchestration than attitude. The assured, white-bread vocal harmonies of ”Into the Great Wide Open” and “Free Fallin’ ” were faithfully reproduced, but lacked even a smidgen of soul. The varied instrumental timbres of “I Won’t Back Down,” which featured four guitars, and “Out in the Cold,” which was sparked by Benmont Tench’s percussive piano, provided momentary diversion rather than genuine enhancement.
Only a brief set devoted to acoustic interpretations of early hits (as well as covers of Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” and Van Morrison’s “I’m Tired, Joey Boy”) held genuine excitement. “American Girl” and ”Breakdown,” staples of the Heartbreakers’ shows, have rarely received such warm and illuminating treatment.
Petty played the front man as though sleepwalking. He plugged Greenpeace, halfheartedly entreated his audience to vote, and rambled through silly theatrical interludes designed to show off the stage set – an elaborate inflated tree complete with an entrance for – who knows what? Cookie-toting elves? In one ridiculous scene, a man in a dragon suit tumbled down the stairs to deliver Petty’s harmonica on a platter.
These indulgences were made more obvious by the lean, and incredibly focused, opening set by newcomer Chris Whitley. Alternating slow ruminations with blues-drenched stomps, Whitley and an enthusiastic backing trio re- created the spacious sound of his debut album, Living With the Law.
“Kick the Stones” and “I Forget You Every Day” showed Whitley’s penchant for to-the-bone directness, and illustrated the lure of this artist’s distinctive “big sky” music – a sound in which the trancelike simplicity of swamp blues collides with soaring Hendrix feedback and the heaven-bound falsetto of a soul crooner.