Taking Fans on a Walk, Going Beyond His Hits
By Ben Ratliff
The New York Times — July 30, 2010
Over the years Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have made a lot of repetitive songs that don’t force you to think about them as such. Sometimes they’ve got sweet bridges and tiny solos; they’re layered and warm and bar-band authentic. They’re about rock ‘n’ roll as sacrament, highways, the sun in your hair, boys and girls turning one anothers’ heads. They’re locked into their sentimentality and carry a promise that Mr. Petty will never change much.
But on his new album, “Mojo,” the band puts longer solos in the songs. And though they’re not marathons — they’re just a minute or so longer than normal Tom Petty numbers — when he played them on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, you could experience time passing: you could hear instrumental momentum; you got a small chance to think about repetition, about yourself and your relationship to music. He was taking us for a walk. Not a long one, and he wasn’t showing us things we hadn’t seen before, but still.
The midconcert, 30-minute subset of five songs from “Mojo” that Mr. Petty has been playing on this tour has been getting bad reviews, which all seem to ask why he is trying his audience’s patience. I don’t know about that. I think his audience could withstand having its musical patience tried a little.
The new songs establish a vibe. They hang around for a bit, leaving pot smoke behind. They’re not so great in the CD player; they’re channeling late-1960s Southern rock and acid blues. But in context on Wednesday they were just different enough from the rest of the concert — almost all of which came from Mr. Petty’s 10-times-platinum “Greatest Hits” album — that they amounted to a whole other philosophy of art.
And the band woke up to play them, especially Mr. Petty, whose sleepy grin looks more genuine after you have seen him in the throes of what has probably worn him down and fulfilled him in the first place: perfectionism.
It was nice to see all that vintage gear get more use. There are three guitarists in the Heartbreakers, and at least two changed guitars for each song: rivers of old Gibsons, Fenders, Rickenbackers, Gretsches. Besides the lead soloist, Mike Campbell, who with a Les Paul can pull off almost masterly Jimmy Page impressions, and Mr. Petty, there’s the curious figure of the multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, standing behind keyboards with his guitar strapped on, singing, strumming or pressing down keys as the moment requires. (And every moment does: for a couple of words of light backup vocals, a revolving riff holding a tune together, and a short lead in harmony with Mr. Campbell. It was fascinating to see how Mr. Thurston slides into this puzzle, subsuming himself into the whole, no matter what he plays.)
The opening act never sounds as good as the headliner. On Wednesday the great blues guitarist Buddy Guy, the warm-up for Mr. Petty on his East Coast dates, grew piercingly loud in the wrong way whenever he started in on his manic, scrabbling solos, of which there were a lot. But this was also a concert at which the headlining band’s new stuff sounded better than anything else. After the Heartbreakers’ set, you came away thinking about guitar tone: in “First Flash of Freedom,” the liquid, harmonized slide-guitar leads; in “Running Man’s Bible,” the mellow nimbus of distortion around Mr. Petty’s lines. If you weren’t just waiting for hits, there was a proper sensory experience in there.