Petty: He’s What Life’s All About
By Tom Phalen
The Seattle Times — Thursday, November 21, 1991
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Chris Whitley, Seattle Coliseum, last night.
Possibly the nicest thing about Tom Petty is that he seems to live in the same world as the rest of us.
True, he’s a rock-‘n’-roll star, a great songwriter, almost something of an elder statesman now to the rock generation of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He clearly displayed all of these attributes during a two-plus hour show before a near capacity audience. But in his heart of hearts, it appears that Tom Petty is a real mensch.
He dedicated a gentle Van Morrison song to Magic Johnson. He chastised the security guys for over-muscling some audience members, stopping the show to do it, and they complied. People sang along on the new songs without being asked. When they were asked, they sang even louder. He told the audience he wasn’t sponsored by soft drinks or beer. “We’re just a small business,” he explained. There was a real sweetness – Petty’s own word – to the entire evening.
But the evening also rocked, long and hard. Kicking off with a blistering rendition of “Kings Highway” from the new “Into The Great Wide Open,” Petty seemed to respond to the audience’s enthusiastic response with the next song, “Too Good To Be True,” also a new cut. His voice was a little husky at first, the high notes were a bit strained. But by the third song, “I Won’t Back Down” from his solo effort “Full Moon Fever” he was in full moon howl.
Petty managed to cover his entire career through the course of the show, and not always with the expected material. “Free Fallin’ ” one of his biggest solo hits was included as expected, and became the first sing-along of the night. Of course, there was the all-join-in “Breakdown,” an audience tradition. But Petty did it with great restraint, especially his “You can go now baby” finish. And he didn’t hand over quite as much of the singing chores to the house.
But when drummer Stan Lynch, who played great, sang the lead on that crusty old ’60s sugar cube “Psychotic Reaction” by The Count Five, things began getting wonderfully weird.
Petty’s stage set included columns and chandeliers that looked like they were left over from the “Southern Accents” tour, a suit of armor, a sea trunk and at the back of the stage an enormous hollowed-out treehouse with up and downstairs doors and a staircase. Like the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, or the place where the Keebler elves whip out those cookies. One of Petty’s roadies, dressed as the psychedelic dragon in white tails, descended the staircase and delivered Petty his psychedelic harmonica.
Pianist Benmont Tench followed with an almost spiritual boogie-woogie. But then Petty got his signature hat out of the trunk, put it on and walked his slow-motion iguana slink into “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
The song ended in a strobe-lit frenzy as Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush – undoubtedly roadies in suits and masks – chased Petty around the stage. The singer eventually fended off their attack with a shield-like, day-glo-orange peace symbol. A real switch from the war fever evident in concerts just a few months ago.
Other highlights: the edgy, desperate high-speed “Out In the Cold,” “Yer So Bad,” (for the security guys) and “Love Is a Long Road.” “Refugee” was oddly lackluster, but the “Runnin’ Down a Dream” that followed had twice as much drive as the recorded version. Guitarist Mike Campbell’s work was stellar, as was the rest of the band’s.
Petty closed with “(We Were) Built To Last” and the rave up “Makin’ Some Noise.” Perfect choices. This guy should run for office. He’s the people’s choice.
And he already has the perfect hat to toss in the ring.