Tom Petty rolls 25 years of rock into classic show
By Michael D. Clark
Houston Chronicle — Monday, May 21, 2001
Celebrating 25 years of playing a hybrid of British and American classic rock is quite a feat for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. It does, however, present a problem in concert.
How does the band choose a set list that’s representative of all its blues-rooted, rock-projected, Grammy-winning songs about how the little guy matters? How does it pick songs explaining the bond between some Gainesville, Fla., country boys who started in the no-name band Mudcrutch and came to define American rock ‘n’ roll?
Put simply: It doesn’t. It can’t. Not in an already generous two-hour set anyway.
After releasing Anthology: Through the Years, the two-disc retrospective of radio hits, late last year it was expected that Friday’s show at the Woodlands Pavilion would follow suit. The 18-song set did feature career-spanning hits, from debut single Breakdown to ’90s highlight Mary Jane’s Last Dance. It was the non-Anthology, more obscure offerings, however, that allowed Petty and his backing Heartbreakers to demonstrate their musical symbiosis.
Extended jams on a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Red Rooster and a smackdown saloon romp Billy the Kid allowed a crowd of close to 17,000, for a brief moment, to sit in with the group during its most casual moment and to see where the chemistry begins.
Song selection noted how precious Petty considers the albums he recorded on his own. Nearly half that set was culled from Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers, two highly successful albums he recorded without the full participation of the Heartbreakers.
Petty must still have fond memories of his 1997 20-night engagement at the Fillmore in San Francisco. His stage is a mobile copy of that famed room. Shards of faux-stained glassed were housed by a red velvet curtain and imitation candle-lit chandeliers (spotlights were strategically hidden inside the light fixtures). The whole thing had sort of an “after hours at the Moulin Rouge” effect.
Shuffling on stage in jeans, his normal haystack of hair accessorized with a graying beard and a jacket stolen from Chris Isaak’s closet, Petty and band opened the show with highlights from Full Moon Fever.
Drummer Steve Ferrone (taking over for longtime Heartbreaker timekeeper Stan Lynch) stomped a hollow bass beat leaving room for chords from co-founding band members keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. As Petty’s nasal, midoctave twang crowned the procession, it became clear how untainted the group’s melodies had remained through the years.
The reception to the theremin-mimicking guitar wiggle opening I Won’t Back Down lifted Petty into a rare state of hammy animation. Lost in the mutual approval was how well that song flowed into the British blues scream of Breakdown. The two songs were written 13 years apart, but sounded like album mates.
One of Petty and the Heartbreakers first tours was opening in England for Nils Lofgren, now a veteran member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Lofgren would look fondly on the Heartbreaker’s Billy the Kid, the only song on the night from the most recent studio record Echo. The long building percussion rhythm led by bassist Howie Epstein exploded into a rock ‘n’ roll jam of jangling guitar layers and sustained organ chords.
It was the type of moment Springsteen might call a “rock ‘n’ roll exorcism” and was a highlight of the set. Under-appreciated It’s Good to be King unfolded in a similar American jam-band tradition. Campbell, playing a two-fretted Rickenbacker 12-string monster, drove the song from ballad to arena rock. Coupled with the harmonica-led simplicity of You Don’t Know How It Feels, it made for a nice medley of Wildflowers tunes.
While the unheralded were remarkable for the freedom from constraints, Petty and the Heartbreakers should get equal credit for delivering true versions of hits so many paid to see.
The guitar-as-sitar by Campbell and Tench’s violin and cello re-creation on keyboards made the haunting Don’t Come Around Here No More sound like an orchestra production. And the transport back through time to the crude Telecaster chords of Refugee and American Girl were a pleasant ride.
Most should agree that while the night didn’t offer everything, it offered something for every Petty enthusiast from a quarter-century of music. It was a lot to digest.
Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers have shown the most sincere form of flattery to Petty by copping much of their electric folk rock texture into its act. It was evident the group considered opening for Petty an artistic challenge.
Unlike last December’s live showcase at KRBE’s Jingle Jam, Dylan appeared over the funk of living in his music-icon father Bob’s large shadow. Breach, the album he made as an artistic coping mechanism, has not been the radio darling of 1996’s Bringing Down the Horses. Dylan seems OK with that, too.
Singing with a deep soulful twinge, new songs like Sleepwalker and Letters From the Wasteland have picked up a beat and taken on a little joy. Closing with hits Three Marlenas, One Headlight and the Wallflower’s now standard cover of David Bowie’s Heroes, Dylan flashed white teeth as if he’d just had an epiphany.
Just as Petty and the Heartbreakers drew influence from Bob Dylan so long ago, now he has the benefit of learning not only from his father but from Petty as well. He is the next spoke in a historic rock ‘n’ roll wheel.