The New York Times — October 17, 1991

Tom Petty | Brendan Byrne Arena
By Peter Watrous
The New York Times — October 17, 1991

Tom Petty’s show at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., on Oct. 9 was easy enough to sink into. Mr. Petty, unlike many larger rock acts, makes soft, cloudlike music with a laziness to it that allows a listener to relax. And Mr. Petty, who is one of rock’s more misanthropic songwriters, interspersed the show with vignettes; his stage was covered with odd things like candelabra, old trunks, a totem pole and a large anthropomorphic tree. Mr. Petty is an ironist, and while the show had a languid quality to it, cynicism and humor regularly nudged it toward a semblance of thought. It wasn’t stupid, and in an arena, almost everything meant to have nuance becomes overblown and dumb.

Though Mr. Petty sounded at times as if he was singing through a pile of old socks, it was still clear that he has a gift for melodies. Using one of the best drawls in the business, accented with a touch of the adenoidal, Mr. Petty managed to make most of his songs sound sarcastic. Though he played a handful of tunes from his new record, “Into the Great Wide Open,” which is nosediving off the charts, he quickly started rummaging through older pieces. He sang “I Won’t Back Down,” “Don’t Come Around Here Anymore,” “American Girl” and “Freefallin’,” tunes that used their choruses to express an intellectual sensibilty.

Mr. Petty broke the show into sections. For a while the band members took solos, with the pianist Benmont Tench playing a boogie-woogie piece. There was a long acoustic section as well. And for one song, “Don’t Come Around Here Anymore,” Mr. Petty had people wearing Nixon, Bush and Quayle masks chasing him around the stage. Mr. Petty disappeared, only to pull out a peace sign and chase them around the stage. The crowd gave the skit a standing ovation. Mr. Petty’s audience, heavily weighted with young women, was idolatrous.

The show opened with a droning set by Chris Whitley, a young slide guitarist and songwriter. Mr. Whitley is making some noise in the industry. This makes sense: though young, he is playing rock from the 1970’s — he’s learned his share of Little Feat — and he doesn’t seem to have an ironic thought in his head. Where Mr. Petty was mocking and sarcastic, Mr. Whitley, grinding out blues ideas and being sincere, seemed locked into the set of a contemporary film noir, dripping with American authenticity.

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