Petty and his songs hit home
By Jim Abbott
Orlando Sentinel — September 25, 2006
Gainesville’s native son shines just by doing what he has done for years.
GAINESVILLE — It was a homecoming on Thursday for Tom Petty, who returned for the first concert in his hometown in 13 years.
Such an occasion offers the opportunity for celebration and surprises, and both were part of “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Day” in this college town.
In the afternoon, the mayor gave the band that honor, and the University of Florida commemorated Petty’s career with a distinguished achievement award.
On stage later, Petty and the band turned back the clock to their formative years, running through a breakneck Yardbirds cover early in the show. There were a few other unique touches, such as the fans doing the “Gator chomp” as they clapped along to “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and guitarist Mike Campbell playing an orange guitar with the Gator logo on “You Wreck Me.”
That stuff was cute, but the most impressive part of the show at UF’s sold-out O’Connell Center was that it was basically the same generous, skillful and spirited thing that Petty and the Heartbreakers have been doing for 30 years.
By now, everyone knows what’s coming, but it’s still exhilarating every time. There were the obvious high points: Campbell’s incendiary solo in “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” Scott Thurston’s spot-on high harmonies in songs such as “Handle With Care,” the spiritual release of “Learning to Fly.”
Yet there were also moments in which the band took an overlooked song in its vast repertoire and breathed new life into it. On Thursday, “It’s Good to Be King” was extended to showcase Benmont Tench’s stately piano figures and subdued guitar solos by Campbell and Petty. After taking the volume down to a whisper in a long instrumental interlude, the band built the momentum again toward the finale.
Petty wisely didn’t overdo the nostalgia angle with any long-winded Springteen-esque tales, but he did acknowledge the moment with a few of his Southern-themed songs. There was “Down South,” off the new Highway Companion, and a sweet “Southern Accents,” which he told the crowd he hadn’t performed since his last Gainesville show.
Also adding excitement to the evening was the presence of Stevie Nicks, who joined the band for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “I Need to Know,” and a lovely duet on “Insider.”
Nicks stayed to add harmonies on “Learning to Fly,” a song that has become one of Petty’s most reliable concert staples. On Thursday, a massive sing-along at the end almost had a gospel fervor.
Petty’s command of his hometown audience wasn’t matched by the Strokes; this New York buzz band seemed swallowed up by the arena setting. Singer Julian Casablancas’ aloof detachment didn’t work in the bigger hall as well as it has in the band’s charismatic shows at Downtown Disney’s House of Blues, for instance.
Of course, there was a bit of a disconnect from Petty’s demographic, evidenced by an overheard conversation in which folks were calling the band the “Stokes.” Casablancas seemed a bit miffed early in the band’s 50-minute opening set, dedicating one song to “the guy who told us he wants us to hurry up.”
Musically, the Strokes were sharp as ever, charging through songs such as “Vision of Division,” “Hard to Explain” and “Take It Or Leave It” with a combination of raucous energy and precision.
But escaping Petty’s shadow on this night was a tall order, and the hometown star didn’t waste time diving into a long list of hits. The opening “Listen to Her Heart” was followed by “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’ “. Only then did Petty offer “Saving Grace,” a chugging rock song from Highway Companion.
For about two hours and 15 minutes, the hits just kept coming, without any fireworks or pyrotechnics. Aside from the multiple video screens behind and above the band, and handsome lighting that resembled futuristic chandeliers, there were no special effects. No one missed them.
Instead, Petty and the Heartbreakers elevated their rock ‘n’ roll with an aura of humanity, which is powerful even if it’s not flashy.
“Wouldn’t it be great if, for one moment, everything was all right,” Petty wondered aloud as the show neared its finale. A few moments later, with the band and the crowd singing along to a joyous “American Girl,” it was.