Tom Petty, Heartbreakers jangle in harmony at United Center
By Bob Gendron
Chicago Tribune — July 18, 2010
Nearly a decade ago, U2 proudly announced it was reapplying for the job of the best band in the world. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have never made such an audacious claim. But Saturday at a packed United Center, the ensemble made a strong case for at least being considered for the position. The sextet’s inventive days are gone, yet the communication, cohesiveness and chemistry that Petty and his mates demonstrated for 110 minutes should serve as a lesson to all musicians—particularly hoary legacy acts content to coast on their laurels.
From the big jangle of the opening “Listen to Her Heart” through the country-tinged pep of the closing “American Girl,” the Heartbreakers treated every tune as a vehicle for collaborative expression. Akin to the 2005 World Champion White Sox, there aren’t any superstars in the Heartbreakers. Dressed in a crushed velvet sports coat, Petty didn’t hog the spotlight, and neither did his eager supporting cast. The all-for-one approach allowed each member to step in with key contributions, whether they came in the form of keyboardist Benmont Tench’s raindrop-evoking piano fills or jack-of-all-trades Scott Thurston’s dusty harmonica accents. Reinvigorated since their last tour, the Heartbreakers epitomized how a great rock band operates—and acts.
While Petty played the role of gracious ringleader, stretching his arms out in response to crisp rhythms and shaking maracas at the crowd as if he were a priest blessing his flock with holy water, he remained vested in the songs. The singer/guitarist often sidled up to lead guitarist Mike Campbell, standing toe-to-toe or shoulder-to-shoulder with him during solos, the pair’s overlapping harmonic leads intertwining with Ron Blair’s steady bass lines. The Heartbreakers also proved human. When a moth flew into drummer Steve Ferrone’s mouth and caused him to lose the beat a few bars into “First Flash of Freedom,” the band shared a laugh and started again. Perfection took a back seat to wide-open arrangements distinguished by warm tones, organic melodies and pure feeling.
By refusing to rush the pace, the group exposed subtle new wrinkles in old favorites. “Learning to Fly” got stripped down into an acoustic lullaby that seemed to float. Petty drizzled nasal drawl onto “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” emphasizing syllables and waving his finger to underscore a defiant message. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” benefited from an extended coda, with the ever-economical Campbell laying down a loose boogie groove that the group instantly got behind.
Campbell also figured prominently on five songs from the sextet’s recent album “Mojo,” performed as a batch to set a mood and serve as a thematic break. Given extra room to roam, Campbell coaxed muscular sounds from his instrument and paid homage to the band’s bluesy roots, showing that sometimes by going back, you go forward.