POP REVIEW: Petty Still Polishing Verties of the ’60s
By Jon Pareles
The New York Times — April 14, 1999
Tom Petty writes songs about stubborn folks: taciturn, determined, ordinary people who may get snubbed or pushed around, but who won’t back down. He’s mighty stubborn himself. Since he arrived in the 1970’s, his musical taste has been unswerving.
Mr. Petty and his trusty band, the Heartbreakers, are 1960’s classicists who find undying verities in Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Beatles, and they don’t have much use for newfangled notions. Like a grandfather sitting on a porch by an interstate, Mr. Petty watches impassively as hip-hop and trip-hop, thrash and jungle, grunge and trance all rush by, while he’s content to rock at his own pace.
Mr. Petty and the Heartbreakers played the first of three sold-out shows at Irving Plaza on Sunday night. (The last one takes place tomorrow.) The rambling, two-and-a-quarter-hour set was partly a rehearsal for the band’s summer tour of arenas, partly a casual run-through of other people’s songs from the 60’s and before. Mr. Petty got around to only four songs from his new album, “Echo” (Warner Brothers). True to the style of 60’s-vintage stars, Mr. Petty had an opening act with a 50’s pedigree, Bo Diddley, and he put old country and blues songs on the sound system during intermission.
Mr. Petty and the Heartbreakers started their set with “Rip It Up,” the Little Richard song from 1956, though ripping things up isn’t their style. The Heartbreakers are a grandly proficient band, steaming through their songs with every lick in place, whether it’s honky-tonk piano from Benmont Tench or neck-rack harmonica from Scott Thurston or modal-country Byrds lines, one-note Neil Young jabs and wailing Eric Clapton curlicues from Mike Campbell on lead guitar.
They polish and preserve their chosen styles like restorers applying period detail. And what the music lacks in the thrill of discovery it nearly makes up in a simple sense of rightness, of parts falling perfectly into place. It sounds easy, though that ease comes through decades of playing together and careful choices of everything from tempo to guitar tone.
For all Mr. Petty’s musical debts, his songs are personalized. His voice — strangulated, unpretty and emotionally reticent — fights the music’s dexterity, and his lyrics make him a perpetual outsider, a lonely underdog. In “Room at the Top,” from “Echo,” the singer has found a refuge, and he wishes his love would join him, but he won’t come out. Mr. Petty only sounds smug when he sings about women. In “Free Girl Now,” over crunchy garage-rock guitar chords, there’s an odd jolt of the near present: he recognizes a woman’s sexual harassment, then magnanimously grants her emancipation from it.
The Irving Plaza set started well, with the band pealing out songs like “Running Down a Dream” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” But it lost its way with an unbroken half-hour stretch of cover songs: the Heartbreakers as bar band.
Mr. Petty then turned to gentle, acoustic-guitar versions of songs like “Walls” that were pristine at first, then repetitive. Eventually the full band kicked in, and Mr. Petty finished by making an oldie his own: “Gloria,” with narration in which the raggedy singer finally gets the girl’s attention because he’s in a rock band.
It wasn’t Patti Smith’s evangelical transformation of the song from the 70’s; it was just a regular rocker’s testimonial to the simple pleasures of his craft.