Petty’s energy wanes at times
By Bruce Westbrook
Houston Chronicle — Thursday, April 20, 1995
The show was sold out. The artist has not.
Easing into middle age with rare grace and dignity, Tom Petty brought his low-tech, roots-rich rock to the Woodlands Pavilion on Tuesday night, showing 13,000 fans that he won’t back down from the identity he’s fashioned over 19 years as a major recording act.
That’s not to say his two-hour concert was a galvanizing success. Touring on his reflective new heartland-style album, Wildflowers, Petty seemed content to amble and ramble
through his set, rather than sparking and sustaining high energy.
Indeed, the adoring crowd that roared wildly at the show’s triumphant start seemed to drift away as Petty settled into a lengthy, nearly “unplugged” middle segment of ballads, blues, novelty songs and folk-flavored tunes.
But when he did rev it up and damn the torpedoes for full-speed ahead, Petty and his longtime band mates – Mike Campbell on guitars and Benmont Tench on keyboards -played some truly transcendent rock ‘n’ roll.
After an uninspired half-hour set from wimpy pop-rockers the Jayhawks, Petty and company took to a stage strewn with candelabra to play mostly oldies at first, including 1978’s Listen to Her Heart, with its jangling guitar sounds from his early Byrds-influenced days.
The defiant rocker I Won’t Back Down offered strong four-man vocal backing, and Free Falling, which began with some chord confusion, drew a full-throated audience sing-along.
Though not billed as such, Petty introduced his band as the Heartbreakers, also including Howie Epstein on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums, and Scott Thurston on guitar and harmonica.
Their performance was potent and tight, though rarely spontaneous. Petty’s concerts have become more a matter of assured professionalism than the edgy vitality from much of his career.
The sound mix was a bit muddy and, if anything, not loud enough. Lighting was simple to the point of irrelevance. Petty’s highly tuneful songs often trailed off in a classy rather than awkward way as he eschewed the cliched big-finish kick.
But for the new You Wreck Me and Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Petty and Campbell’s guitar leads built to frenzied peaks.
Petty departed while Campbell played wry solos of ’60s surf music and Monty Norman’s James Bond theme, seemingly inspired by Pulp Fiction.
Returning, Petty slid into the forgettable new Cabin Down Below and a subdued Into the Great Wide Open, dedicated to his beloved, adopted home of L.A.
Learning to Fly also was gentle, as was the folk-flavored new Time to Move On, while The Waiting was reduced to stripped-down, serenading simplicity.
By the time he did a lilting minstrel turn for his new album’s title track, the Pavilion was feeling more like lullaby land than a venue for a durable rock ‘n’ roller.
It’s one thing to avoid patronizing kids with overly aggressive posturing; it’s another to settle for serenity when your older fans’ own torches are flickering away.
But Petty finally hit high gear for the finish, from You’re So Bad and It’s Good to Be King to a hard-rocking new unrecorded song and the 1979 chestnut Refugee, with another superb Campbell solo.
Running Down a Dream then closed the set with pounding ferocity, a quality that would have been welcome with more regularity.
It’s good to see a solid rock craftsman like Petty surviving and thriving among today’s Young Turks. It would be even better if he showed more commandingly why he triggered our excitement in the first place.