The Bloom Is Still On Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune — August 2, 1999
Today’s star becomes tomorrow’s Huey Lewis and the News, and middle age eventually wilts all of our rock ‘n’ roll heroes. To which Tom Petty might say, “You don’t know how it feels to be me.”
In fact, Petty sang that exact line Saturday at the New World Music Theatre. He was in typically defiant form, his rail-thin frame leaning at a 45-degree angle to the microphone, blond hair falling across his face, a finger jutting at some unseen accuser, his left foot pounding the stage. It’s a fashion-resistant stance that has served him for 23 years, and it’s as resilient as the characters in his songs.
In a two-hour set, those characters kept digging in their heels: “Take back your insurance . . . take back Eddie Vedder, give ’em all someplace to go”; “I’ll stand my ground/No, I won’t back down”; “I got a room at the top of the world tonight/And I ain’t comin’ down.” His female leads were equally defiant: the office worker in “Free Girl Now,” the outlaw on the run in “Swingin’.”
Petty delivered the news in a classic rock ‘n’ roll voice: a Southern drawl that dragged a half-step behind the beat, full of sly inflection that suggested the mellowness of someone who never just said “no” to the bong pipe. And yet it was a voice that broke off countless lines in a stray-cat yowl, as it scratched for breathing room amid the bristling guitars of the Heartbreakers.
The singer’s longtime backing band uncharacteristically broke free for a few jamming sprees, notably on an extended version of “It’s Good to be King” and a surf instrumental, both built around the soloing of Mike Campbell. The guitarist is a master of the indelible riff, the melodic fill, a counterpuncher rather than a flashy leader. So he was out of his element in the longer pieces, and drummer Steve Ferrone proved to be the more adept improviser.
But when the Heartbreakers clung closely to the songs, they were a faultless machine — a band that knows the value not only of flooring it in fifth gear but of laying back and letting the melodies breathe. This was particularly true of Benmont Tench, who favored each song with just the right combination of keyboard textures.
Petty surveyed his dozen virtually interchangeable albums, the consistency of his songwriting allowing him to exclude such obvious hits as “Refugee,” “The Waiting” and “American Girl” without losing stride. There were touches of blissfully brain-dead-and-proud-of-it garage-rock in the arrangements for “Free Girl Now” and “I Don’t Wanna Fight,” with Campbell taking a rare lead vocal; and hushed, drummer-less acoustic versions of “I Won’t Back Down” and “Walls.” But mostly the music flowed from the holy trinity of Dylan, the Byrds and the Stones — honoring the classic-rock tradition with memorable songs about hardy characters who don’t owe their existence to a Gap ad.
It would be easy to take Petty for granted. He doesn’t keep reinventing himself like many artists who have had similarly long and respected careers. And the goofy between-songs patter suggests he’s just an amiable hayseed fronting a decent bar band. But the songs refuse to fade. Instead, their heart becomes more apparent with each passing year.