Petty & Co. in groove with nothin’ to prove
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune — July 4, 2008
He has been documented in a four-hour movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has collaborated with George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Surely, Tom Petty would seem to have nothing left to prove and only cash to count as he rolls out yet another national tour.
But Petty has never cottoned to the role of rock star; he’s always come across as a die-hard fan with a guitar, and he leads his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, with an Everyman, roll-up-the-sleeves attitude. At the United Center on Wednesday, Petty and his five accomplices sprinkled a mixture of hits, deep album cuts and outright obscurities into a set that suggested they were taking nothing for granted, least of all the idea a band is only as good as tonight’s gig.
If we must have rock concerts in hockey arenas, they should all be this focused, this free of distractions, this adroitly balanced between crowd-pleasing hits and boundary-pushing rarities. Petty trusts his audience, too, by letting the music — instead of gratuitous special effects — tell the story. Stretching out his arms like a big bird is about the extent of his showmanship, which explains why the band looked a little flat when it headlined the recent Super Bowl halftime.
Petty doesn’t strike in short telegenic bursts, but ambles along like the self-effacing Southerner he is. Beneath the unassuming exterior is a steely resilience, reflected in songs that declare “I won’t back down” and “You don’t know how it feels to be me.”
He went deep a few times, never more so than when he pulled out “Sweet William,” a smoky, blues-flecked outtake from “Echo.” He also worked in atmospheric pieces such as “A Face in the Crowd” and stretched out the well-worn blues tropes in “Honey Bee” and “Saving Grace.” These tunes were designed to give his band room to roam. Mike Campbell found just the right voicing for every song on his armada of guitars and Benmont Tench hunched over his keyboards like a mad chemist.
Petty also shared the stage with his opening act, Steve Winwood, who turned the Heartbreakers into the world’s most expensive backing band. Though Winwood’s recent music has mellowed, with Petty he plunged back to the Blind Faith era for a yearning “Can’t Find My Way Home” and channeled his teenage blues-shouter past with the Spencer Davis Group on “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
When Petty regained the wheel, he knew where to steer. “Learning to Fly” soared with just guitar and voices, and the crowd’s enthusiasm filling in the gaps. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” detoured from Eastern drone to Memphis freight-train roar, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” nearly ran off the rails. Like Bruce Springsteen with “Born to Run,” it’s difficult to imagine a Petty set without it. It’s that good, and Petty is that reliable.