Chicago Sun-Times — December 13, 2002

Tom Petty at United Center
By Jim DeRogatis
Chicago Sun-Times — December 13, 2002

It may not be a fashionable persona circa 2002, but Tom Petty has always been a hippie idealist, even if his music eschews the most popular ’60s cliches (hello, Dave Matthews and all of you jam bands) in favor much simpler, cleaner and janglier sounds.

Musically, Petty and his longtime backing band, the Heartbreakers, rarely offer any significant surprises in concert. Their solid two-hour set Wednesday night at a packed United Center was much like their last three or four visits to Chicago: simple, clean and jangly as ever, full of heartfelt tunes about standing your ground and not backing down, but with the added edge of Petty having declared war on the music business as usual.

The laconic blond rocker opened his set with “The Last DJ,” the title track of his recent album, and a withering critique of the soulless nature of corporate rock radio that has won him the wrath of the National Association of Broadcasters and many radio programmers. Further on, he delivered several strong attacks on the major label system and corporate sponsorship of rock bands.

“Pepsi Cola is a really good soft drink, but I can’t imagine how it can help me with my music,” he said. (Price of a small Pepsi at the United Center concession stands: $3.50.) “We are brought to you by you.”

Yes, there are ambiguities–some might say hypocrisies–in his stance. Petty records for one of the biggest, baddest corporate conglomerates there is, and while embarking on noble crusades to keep the price of his albums and concert tickets low, he has also benefitted from the very hype machine (press, radio and retail promotion that we all wind up paying for in the end) that he loudly decries.

But few rockers of his stature are addressing these issues at all. Bono is happy to discuss AIDS and the World Bank, but try asking him about U2’s ticket prices, and suddenly his opinions become very slippery indeed. And the core of Petty’s message is honest, timeless and always worth hearing: It’s the music that matters most, and to hell with all the rest.

To that end, the Florida native performed on a spartan stage with his top-notch band (special props as always to the astoundingly colorful keyboardist Benmont Tench, fiery lead guitarist Mike Campbell and powerful drummer Steve Ferrone–though I still miss the jagged rawness Stan Lynch lent to the proceedings) delivering spirited renditions of many of his enduring favorites: “The Waiting,” the 1979 nugget “Shadow of Doubt (A Complex Kid),” “A Woman in Love” and his killer cover of the Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better.”

There were also draggy moments. Aside from the title track, many of the tunes on the new album are mired in slow tempos and powered by hesitant acoustic guitar. They lack the propulsion of Petty’s best rockers or the droning melodies of his psychedelic ballads, and they gained little in live performance.

It was a noble sentiment for the star to pay tribute to his late friend George Harrison. But the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” remains an unbelievably lame ditty. And no matter how hard Tom tries, “Learning to Fly” will never be as effective as a crowd sing-along as the irresistible “Free Fallin’.”

So no, Petty and the Heartbreakers did not change the world Wednesday night. They didn’t reach some amazing new artistic peak, and they didn’t rewrite the rules for arena rock. But they didn’t back down, either, sticking for the most part to what they have always done best. And sometimes that’s enough.

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