A New Beginning
By John Metzger
The Music Box — September 1999
Tom Petty may have arrived on the music scene in the ’70s and risen to stardom in the ’80s on the back of his many MTV-fueled hits, but it was in the ’90s that he truly ruled. Over the past decade, he has matured as a songwriter and produced his finest efforts to date — Wildflowers and the soundtrack from She’s the One. Both albums were produced by Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and mastermind Rick Rubin, and found Petty exploring new musical terrain albeit with his typically strong leanings toward classic rock. His latest effort Echo is another solid affair that musically sums up his career, while dealing with the emotional scars of his recent divorce. Yet, it also offers rays of light and hope in the midst of its tales of sorrow.
On July 31, Petty and his longtime cohorts The Heartbreakers took to the stage of Tinley Park’s New World Music Theatre for a set that paraded through a treasure trove of rock anthems. At first glance, the set list might have looked like a greatest hits showcase, and on a certain level it was since only four songs from Echo were made it into the evening’s repertoire. However, digging a little deeper into the emotions behind the performance clearly indicate that through his recent personal-life trauma, Petty was able to reconnect with much of the music of his past.
The two-hour set seemed to follow in the mood and spirit of Echo, as Petty emphasized many of the lyrics in his older songs that dealt with a love that was lost. He seemed reinvigorated as he filled old standards like Listen to Her Heart and Don’t Do Me Like That with an emotional delivery that was fully supported by the thunderous assault of The Heartbreakers.
Led by Campbell’s searing leads and the pile-driving rhythms of bassist Howie Epstein and drummer Steve Ferrone, the group pushed the music harder. They never allowed the momentum to slip, and barely let go of the accelerator as they drove almost every song at full throttle against the thrashing backdrop of guitar chords from Petty and Scott Thurston. The group matched Petty’s mood swings with pinpoint accuracy, brilliantly underscoring the frustration in You Don’t Know How It Feels and forcefully attacking Mary Jane’s Last Dance with an unrelenting sense of urgency. It was up to keyboardist Benmont Tench to the provide the subtler texture to the songs, which he did with majestic piano and churning organ chords.
The set list took on a narrative quality that carried with it a roller coaster ride of emotions. In the forefront of the songs, there was a pervading spirit of anger and rage, but beneath the surface lay the undeniable pain of a broken heart. On Room at the Top, Petty begged, “I love you/Please love me/I’m not so bad” only to follow with “If you can do better than me, then go” during You Got Lucky before finally accepting the end of his relationship in Free Girl Now. As with Petty’s real life, the concert had a happy ending. After Free Fallin’ he met someone new, which he characterized by concluding with phenomenal renditions of Them’s Gloria and his own American Girl. It was as if by digging so deeply into his past, Petty was also embracing his future and a new beginning in which everything almost certainly would turn out alright.
Lucinda Williams opened the show with a solid set that made the case for her as a rock rather than a country artist. She and her band served up a jangly mix of instruments that included mando-guitar, Hammond organ, and 12-string guitar. Unfortunately her performance was woefully short, and she seemed to struggle to find her place among the amphitheater’s pitiful acoustics. During the last few songs of her set, she did manage to regain her composure and turn in surging renditions of Can’t Let Go and Change the Locks, which Petty had recorded for the She’s the One soundtrack. Williams’ finest moment came during Joy on which she took a mantra-like approach to the lyrics as the band alternated between turning the music into a raging inferno and moody atmospheric piece. It was a gutsy and raw conclusion to her performance that set the stage perfectly for Petty.