With Tom Petty, the Only Change is for the Better
By Tony Sauro
Stockton Record — September 2, 2002
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Jackson Browne | Saturday night | AutoWest Amphitheatre, Marysville
Some things never change.
Which, in the case of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, is a good thing.
For 27 years, with and without his band of brothers, Petty has established himself as one of rock and roll’s most consistent, dependable and rewarding artists.
He’s done it by sticking to the basics — solid craft, ever-sharpening musicianship, a humble, no-bull persona and a sturdy body of memorable songs — while refusing to be co-opted by the corporate fat cats.
The only thing that changes is that Petty and his band keep getting better.
They were at it again Saturday night, totally captivating a revved-up capacity crowd at AutoWest Amphitheatre in Marysville with an impressive sampling of the meat-and-potatoes brand of classic rock that landed them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year and has cultivated a devoted following that now transcends four decades and three generations.
On the next-to-last night of a summer tour leading up to the release of his 16th album, Petty and his well-oiled five-man band powerfully rocked the socks off an eager and responsive gathering during an 18-song, 1-hour, 50-minute show that underlined the virtues of real talent and musicianship, increasingly endangered elements in the post-millennial world of mainstream pop music.
The 51-year-old Petty, rail-thin in a purple velvet coat and black-rebel shirt and pants — with his long blond hair evoking other times and hippier places — was his typically bashful, amiable self, repeatedly and profusely thanking the crowd in tones of surprise and humility.
Though he hasn’t had a “hit” since 1994, what did he expect?
His famously raspy voice, with an accent still hinting at his Florida roots, sounded strong and sure. He’s still able to locate the right inflections of anger, pain, defiance, revenge and remorse that fuel many of his songs about pursuing love and understanding in a sometimes cruel world.
A multi-generational crowd at the 18,500-capacity mound near Marysville was with him all the way — whistling, hooting, fist-pumping, singing, clapping, dancing and swaying along to anthemic classics such as “I Won’t Back Down,” “I Need to Know,” “Refugee,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “You Wreck Me” and “Free Fallin’.”
The set list emphasized songs from Petty’s solo albums, and he seemed genuinely pleased by the favorable response to the new “Have Love Will Travel,” a twangy, midtempo tune with a pretty chorus — and some rippling Hammond B3 organ by brilliant Benmont Tench — that’ll be part of “The Last DJ,” the Heartbreakers’ first album since 1999 that’s due out Oct. 8.
As usual, Petty — who’s been at this since he was a teenager in Gainesville, Fla. — and the band, with a psychedelic light show swirling and flashing away on the video screens behind them, looked back playfully and joyfully.
The band cooked happily through Tommy Tucker’s 38-year-old “Hi-Heel Sneakers” — highlighted by Tench’s boogy-woogy piano — and ended the show with an extended version of “Gloria,” the 36-year-old Them standard during which Petty told a funny tall tale about being rejected by a pretty girl. Until she found out he was in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
During a three-song acoustic interlude — with Petty playing a ringing 12-string guitar — he gently caressed Bob Dylan’s 29-year-old “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (along with his own “Learning to Fly” and “Time to Move On”. Most of the audience sang along as though the song actually was his.
Petty, deploying seven guitars — including a rectangular red Bo Diddley model during “Gloria” — definitely is proud the Heartbreakers are his.
“They really are some band, aren’t they?” he marveled.
Yup. They’re almost the original band (four out of five, too, now that bass player Ron Blair is back after a 20-year absence. His deeply thumping and throbbing tones were potently buttressed by drummer Steve Ferrone, a truly awesome force who ranks with the very best in rock music today.
Ferrone and Scott Thurston, who played keyboards, guitar and harmonica, are the newish guys.
Tench, one of the most respected keyboard players in the business, and similarly regarded guitar player Mike Campbell — a Dylan lookalike with his frizzy hair and purple suit — have been with Petty from the start, when the band formed in Los Angeles.
They’re as good as they get, with Campbell’s range of chiming, twanging, ringing and bluesy riffs helping define the Heartbreakers’ familiar sound.
Because of their talent and versatility, Tench and Thurston enabled the Heartbreakers — engaging in some lengthy jams — to alternate their attack from three guitars to two keyboards.
In an era of artistic artifice and unjustified hype, Petty and his Heartbreakers remain the real deal. They’ve done it the old-fashioned way– Petty once played a 20-night set of shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco — creating music that lasts without selling out or giving in.
Petty proudly noted that the band was touring without corporate sponsorship, a rare development these days.
“I always figured we were brought to you by you,” he said with a typically toothy grin.
A roar of approval followed.
Jackson Browne, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who’s in the 30th year of a career based on the same principles as Petty’s, opened with a crackling 65-minute, nine-song set that brought a large part of the crowd suddenly rushing to its seats from the beer lines.
Backed by a potent five-piece band centered around the superb guitar work of veteran Mark Goldenberg, Browne, looking as youthful as ever at 53, prompted repeated singalongs with classics such as “Fountains of Sorrow,” “The Pretender,” “Doctor My Eyes” and “For a Rocker.”
Two new songs — the gently rocking “The Night Inside Me” and the bluesy “Culver Moon” — were warmly received. They’re on his new album (“The Naked Ride Home”, due out on Sept. 24.)