Treating Us Nice
By Gina Arnold
Metro — January 23, 1997
Workmanlike: In defiance of fashion, Tom Petty crafts his songs the old-fashioned way, with charisma and respect.
Craftsmanlike Tom Petty revives some of rock’s best moments in marathon concert stint
Midway through the sixth night (Jan. 16) of his 20-show run (which ends Feb. 7) at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Tom Petty stopped rocking just long enough to talk about his love of Elvis Presley. In a few brief sentences, the normally laconic Petty created a poignant image of himself as a kid, desperately watching the final scenes of Jailhouse Rock through the rear windshield of his parents’ car as his outraged Dad roared out of a Florida drive-in.
“And I remember he did a real cool thing with his guitar,” commented Petty, “when he turned it backward like this …” As he spoke, Petty turned his own guitar around, and began to use it, Presley-like, as if it were a pair of bongos.
The gesture signified the start of Petty’s own version of Presley’s “Treat Me Nice,” but it also showed the detail-oriented nature of Petty’s craft. He is a great emulator–not so much a creative as an imitative force in music, someone who sees the innate merit in even trivial songs. Someone who is able, through his own art, to re-imbue those songs with a modern life-force.
He is imitative in the very best sense of the word, like a cabinetmaker who is able to fashion perfect reproductions of beautiful and historic furniture, and then place them in your very own home–a place where you can truly appreciate them.
Petty’s music is just like classic furniture that way: simple, useful and beautiful, but only in the most workmanlike way. Moreover, here in the waning days of the century, Tom Petty has suddenly emerged as one of the few artists left with any credibility whatsoever.
While bands from Pearl Jam to Sonic Youth are fast losing their edge, Petty’s secretly been honing his, until he’s finally cornered the market on the stuff.
Certainly the announcement that he was going to do a 20-night stand at the Fillmore–thus fulfilling many of his fans’ wildest dreams–was a generous gesture for a man who normally plays arenas.
Petty’s shows set off a host of rumors about various “special guests,” particularly since the opening act for the first few shows was the Wallflowers, a band led by the son of Bob Dylan. (Dylan himself was a no-show, and the final performances will be opened, alternately, by Pete Droge, Roger McGuinn and–bizarrely–the Presidents of the United States of America, Beck having backed out at the last minute.)
Little Big Band
Given the poor sales of arena tours in 1996–not to mention the unenjoyable nature of most of them–one can only hope that Petty’s innovation marks the beginning of a trend in rock artists’ conception of touring. Maybe we’ll start seeing more big bands playing more nights at smaller places: U2 at the Warfield, or the Stones at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
One of the nicest things about the Fillmore shows–which sold out in several hours–was that they were definitely for fans only, and there’s nothing like a room packed full of fans to make a person feel good about rock again.
Although it lasted more than two hours, the Fillmore show was short on Petty-written hits and long on style, fun and rock & roll history, including as it did everything from pristine covers of rock classics like “Shakin’ All Over,” “Gloria,” “Diddy Wah Diddy” and “Suzie Q” to songs by the Ventures, the Zombies, Ricky Nelson and even the Rolling Stones.
If anything, Petty’s own hits suffered by comparison, particularly video-ruined songs like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Running Down the Dream.”
Amazingly, however, the concert’s final number, “Free Falling,” stood right up next to “Gloria” and was even saluted by it–which is high praise indeed.
At one point, Petty called himself and the Heartbreakers the Fillmore House Band, and indeed, that’s what they sounded like.
If it hadn’t been for guitarist Mike Campbell’s famous trademark chord–a twangy, piercing and unmistakable one-note solo that permeates the Heartbreakers’ work and can even be heard in some of the other songs he plays on, like Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”–the Heartbreakers could have been any old competent house band.
But that, of course, was part of the evening’s many charms: Petty managed to strike a perfect medium between club-going and star-gazing that has long been missing from the sterile rock confines of places like Shoreline and the Oakland Coliseum.
By playing the Fillmore–and by not sticking to a greatest-hits set–Petty proved himself to be an artist who still appreciates playing live for its own sake. More importantly, he demonstrated that he has infinite respect for his audience.
In Excelsis ‘Gloria’
One part of Petty’s newfound cred is his ability to do really basic rock genres well: bluegrass, seven- and 12-bar blues, rockabilly, surf, whatever. And yet, for all the plainness of the fare he was serving up, Petty made one realize why he’s such a star.
Understated though his art is, he has a great respect for the theatrical gesture–for the blue-suede-shoes school of rockin’ out, so to speak.
His is a house band with an abundance of charisma, and so, although many of the moments at the Fillmore show were mere plays on famous rock moments–the reverb-ridden “Shakin All Over,” the Presley imitation and so forth–they were a wonderful reminder of rock’s potential charm in this rather charmless era.
This respect for the music was particularly evident in Petty’s rendering of the old chestnut “Gloria,” which ended with the audience flinging up its hands spontaneously and shouting “Gloria” as if they were in a revival meeting.
The routine has been done many times before (most notably by Bruce Springsteen), but it’s always a pleasure to take part in, one of those fabulously unifying moments that makes one feel good about art and America and all that old-hat jazz.