A Far Cry From Petty
By Linda Zhu
The Daily Californian — Monday, August 29, 2005
Running Down The Greek, Tom Petty Mesmerizes Diverse Berkeley Crowd, Both Young and Old
Tom Petty played it straight Saturday night, and straight was all he needed. As Petty and his Heartbreakers made their way through three decades of favorites, one got the sense that they needn’t to try too hard.
They were coasting, and it didn’t matter: the audience sang through near the entire thing.
Petty’s voice, like Bob Dylan’s, has such a distinct sound that the very full Greek Theatre audience was in a spell as soon as he started. Make no mistake, this was no blowing-in-the-wind Dylan concert with crummy music and incomprehensible lyrics. But Petty does owe a debt to the man-as one bar owner told Petty’s first band after a gig, “You really ought to let that kid who sings the Dylan songs sing some more.”
It was Petty’s voice that kept the music fresh as he opened with a string of greatest hits: the sharp spoken twang of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” for example, or the melodic choruses of “Breakdown.” In both songs and several others, Petty alternated between these two vocal extremes, spoken and sweet, to maximum effect. Whether he was singing about Indiana boys or Los Angeles, the voice was most of all authentic and American. Even one clearly wasted man who had severe trouble standing managed to belt out all the words, complete with Petty’s vocal ticks, before collapsing.
The rest of the crowd also knew where Petty was going. For a while, most of the normal Berkeley mix of aging hippies and students (who held up as many cell phones as lighters) happily knew all the words. When Petty led in to “Breakdown” by mentioning it was the band’s first single, it was seemed almost informative rather than reminiscent; at this point, most of the crowd probably first heard it on a greatest hits album.
And for a time, the Heartbreakers also seemed to just be along for the ride, providing short solos and backup vocals for near-album versions of songs they have played hundreds of times. With the songs going strong, even Petty didn’t need to do much. At times, he dropped his guitar in favor of theatrically lunging toward a soloing Heartbreaker, and the crowd responded as if to a magician.
The band allowed more space for several less traditional choices in the set’s second half. Petty played a bit of a tribute to Dylan with a heartfelt cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and put together a respectable version of an Animals song. On Petty’s more recent “Melinda,” the Heartbreakers showed that they were truly inspired rather than just well-rehearsed. The musicians traded riffs until a truly magnificent keyboard solo by Benmont Tench. Winters threw off his chair and began excitedly diving at his keys like the instrument had angered him, changing Petty’s initially subdued love song into a syncopated blues romp.
But the attention was quickly back onto Petty for the final songs, and he finished where he started, with several classics without unnecessary elaboration. The songs were enough. All that was needed was for that 52-year-old kid who sings like Petty to sing some more.