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You don’t know how it feels
By Art Bamford
Chimes — April 25, 2003
Smaller is better for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
When asked how the Heartbreakers have managed to outlast so many other bands, and continue to succeed after twenty years, lead singer Tom Petty replied, “Well we’re better than they are.”
This comment might sound arrogant to someone unfamiliar with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but after a five-night run at the Vic Theater last week the people of Chicago would have to agree. It’s unfortunate that the better a band gets, the worse venues they have to play at.
Big names like Tom Petty are usually forced to play basketball stadiums and amphitheatres with the acoustics of a shower and the atmosphere of a shopping mall where the biggest fans often find themselves with the worst seats. A few artists have tried to make things better for fans by offering fan club ticketing but Petty and the Heartbreakers seems to have found a better solution. They teamed up with one of the last major radio stations that isn’t owned by media conglomerate Clear Channel, Chicago’s WXRT-FM, to play five nights (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at the intimate Vic Theater, which is about the same size as Calvin’s Fine Arts Center but has the atmosphere of a Wrigleyville bar. Portions of the first four shows were broadcast on WXRT and Saturday’s show was broadcast live, in its entirety.
Ticketing was carefully setup to make it impossible for scalpers to get their grubby little mitts on any of the tickets and the plan seemed to work very well. The ticket prices were a little steep for a student like myself at fifty collars, but it isn’t every day you see a band that’s in the Rock and Roll Fall of Fame play a three-hour set for 1,000 people.
After waiting outside for several hours Thursday afternoon, the audience of die-hard fans were carefully searched (not everyone is responsible with their freedom) and ushered into the venue. Once inside the energy was palpable as people found their spot on the floor and debated what songs might make that night’s setlist. Because of the strict ticketing fans were only able to see one of the five shows, so the band’s set was similar each night. Moments before the show I spoke with a man who said the previous night’s concert was the best performance he had ever seen and he was a security guard who had been working in Chicago for twenty-five years! Similar reviews have been appearing in the Tribune and Sun-Times all week, so by the time the band took the stage the crowd was bursting with anticipation. The Heartbreakers started their first set with Chicago native Muddy Water’s blues-rock classic “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” I was afraid the band would be too loud in such a small room but I was immediately struck by how perfect the sound was. It was loud enough that you could feel the rhythm in your chest, but not so loud that any of the music’s subtly of nuances were lost. This was especially apparent during the second set, which consisted of mostly quieter acoustic songs.
The first set was sprinkled with a few classics like an extended rendition of “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” but the Heartbreakers knew they didn’t need to rely on hits for such an enthusiastic crowd of longtime fans. New songs like the rocking “Black Leather Woman” and classic covers like “Not Fade Away” were met with the same gregarious response as the more radio friendly material.
The first set clocked in at close to an hour, and after a short intermission the band returned with an amazing acoustic set that also lasted about sixty minutes and proved that the Heartbreakers have indeed survived this long because they can outplay most other bands. Highlights from the acoustic set included “Learning to Fly” in which Petty led the audience in a call and response sing-a-long, and a blistering cover of “Peggy Sue.” The band came out of the acoustic set with a grungy rocker “The Lost Children” from their most recent album “The Last DJ,” followed by another new song called “Two Men Talking” that showcased the explosive musical chemistry of Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench. A few more hits were rolled out to finish the evening including the classic “Refugee” and “You Wreck Me.”
Someone on WXRT pointed out that the Heartbreakers would have to play 30 nights at the Vic to make as much money as one night at the United Center. Anyone in the audience of last week’s shows can tell you the experience of seeing such a talented band at such an intimate venue was priceless. Hopefully Petty’s five-night run at the Vic will set a new standard for bands who are tired of playing closer to beer ads than fans. These shows weren’t about hype or making money, they were about treating fans to a great night of live music. If you ever wonder why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been around so much longer than most bands, let me tell you why: they are better.