Pop Music Review: Tom Petty Continues Rock’s Tradition, Across a Great Divide
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times — April 28, 1995
SAN DIEGO — Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers showed on Wednesday at the sold-out San Diego Sports Arena that they can still make your heart race when they slip into such uplifting ’70s and ’80s anthems as “Refugee” and “American Girl.”
Too often, however, the songs from Petty’s last three albums are rather slim and anonymous character studies that lack the urgency and insight of the early classics.
So why is he selling more records and concert tickets than ever?
Petty, who plays the Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore tonight and the Hollywood Bowl in June, is a superior craftsman whose highly accessible songs appeal to an unusually wide range of fans, thanks to their driving guitar punctuation and hook-filled choruses.
Several of the recent tunes, including “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” are restless and wry enough to touch young fans, yet comforting enough to capture older listeners. It’s no wonder Petty is one of the few artists who is equally at home on MTV and VH1.
Petty also benefits from an added factor. In a rock world overrun with the trendy and the temporary, Petty and his band are seen as the real thing–a genuine piece of rock tradition. And it’s no illusion.
In his early days, Petty, whose sound was built around a seductive blend of Byrds-like vitality and sometimes Stones-ish sting, joined Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger in a blue-collar rock movement that focused on the pursuit of one’s dreams.
It was inspiring, uncompromising music–and Petty lived up to his own ideals by taking dramatic personal stands, both on social issues and against record company interference with his music.
You could see how Petty’s mixture of talent and integrity has given him an unusually broad fan base simply by looking at the fans’ T-shirts at the arena.
When Petty, sporting a scruffy beard, and the five Heartbreakers played 1978’s idealistic “Listen to Her Heart” early in the two-hour set, a teen-ager on the main floor with a Hole T-shirt sang every word–as if it were her story outlined in the song.
As they followed with 1989’s defiant “I Won’t Back Down,” a young fan with an Offspring shirt raised his fist in support.
When the highly disciplined band–still anchored by guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Howie Epstein–roared into 1976’s soaring “American Girl,” a coalition of Cranberries, ZZ Top and Elton John fans locked arms and danced in an aisle.
As a performer, Petty, whose show was opened by the low-key but reliable country-rock strains of the Jayhawks, continues to be likable and unassuming, someone who understands rock’s power to liberate and inspire. Thanks to such goofy interludes as “The Girl on LSD,” he kept the evening’s tone unpretentious and warm.
Petty showed faith in his new material by devoting two-thirds of the concert to tunes from the last three albums. There are solid numbers among them, including the bittersweet “Learning to Fly” and the questioning “Time to Move On,” both of which were featured in an intimate, semi-acoustic sequence.
However, too many–from the blues come-on of “Cabin Down Below” to the confused-teen narrative of “Into the Great Wide Open”–are colorless and routine. The gap between the highs and lows of Petty’s recent work isn’t as drastic as it is with most veteran rock artists, including the Stones. In the end, however, it is the difference between music that sounds as if it were made for the latest record and music that is made for keeps.