Tom Petty unstoppable at the Air Canada Centre
By Ben Rayner
Toronto Star — August 26, 2010
Tom Petty makes a pretty convincing case, I must say, for devoting one’s life to rock ‘n’ roll, weed and takin’ it easy, maaan.
A couple of months shy of his 60th birthday, the dapperly attired Petty who led his faithful backing band, the Heartbreakers, into the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night looked and sounded almost indistinguishable from the Petty who gained his first foothold on radio – and on the permanent pop consciousness from which he’s become inseparable – with “Breakdown” and “American Girl” nearly 35 years ago.
There’s something to be said for only exerting yourself just enough. For no matter how much the critical chorus might chronically fuss over how little Petty has bothered to broaden his songwriting palette over the past three decades, the man’s best work is utterly freakin’ unstoppable. Unstoppable.
Petty’s hits are self-regenerating in the same way that all classic songs – from “Dear Prudence” to “Honky Tonk Woman” to “More Than a Feeling” to “Blitzkrieg Bop” – are self-regenerating. They never really wear themselves out, no matter how many times they’re thrust into your ears. I was in a bar crowded with hipsters and indie-rock musicians on Sunday night when someone threw on Full Moon Fever in its entirety and the reaction to the moment when “I Won’t Back Down” kicks into its “Heeey, baby” refrain was the same then as it was at the ACC on Wednesday; everyone within earshot turned into a giddy teenager and couldn’t help but sing along. And the reaction was similarly joyous to each of the tried-and-true chestnuts – “Listen to Her Heart,” “Free Fallin’,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and a beautifully restrained version of “Learning To Fly” among them – that Petty and the Heartbreakers trundled out during their crisp, 90-minute set.
Material from the band’s recent album Mojo, basically a blues-leaning excuse for Petty to sit back and cede the spotlight to longtime sideman Mike Campbell’s wailing guitar prowess, met with a slightly cooler reception. As maybe it should have, since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fare about as well with their late-career dabbling in the blues as most ageing white men. The band dug into the new tunes with evident eagerness, though, establishing at least one of them – the knowingly Zeppelin-esque behemoth “I Should Have Known It” – as a bona fide keeper and, along the way, rescuing more tedious Mojo excursions such as “Running Man’s Bible” and the long-fused “Good Enough” at the 11th hour with dynamic climaxes built around Campbell’s (and occasionally Petty’s) sustained six-string heroics.
A slight change in direction appears to have reawakened as much of a fire in Petty’s belly as his ultra-chilled persona will allow, at least. Some of Mojo’s jammy spirit found its way into “You Don’t Know How It Feels” – which noodled out into some fluid soloing towards the final chorus that justified the song’s invitation to “roll another joint” – and a sultry, simmering take on “Breakdown.” Those moments, combined with the mid-set blues explosion, served notice that Petty and the Heartbreakers still care enough about and, most importantly, still enjoy what they’re doing enough to do more than just go through the paces onstage.
The same couldn’t be said for openers Crosby, Stills and Nash, who tend to step down from venues the size of the ACC to places like Casino Rama when Neil Young’s not around to class them up but lucked into the opportunity to disgrace themselves before an arena crowd on this trip to Toronto by hitching onto this Petty date.
CS&N – even with the “Y” – is very much a product of its time, I grant you, and tends to carry less weight with listeners who weren’t there for the first go-’round. Even the most charitable peace-and-love adherent, however, would be hard-pressed to excuse the sloppy, disharmonious mess the trio and their drowsy accompanists made of “Déjà vu,” “Our House” and “Wooden Ships” on Wednesday, to say nothing of the butchery visited upon Young’s “Long May You Run” in front of a proud Canadian crowd. I honestly hope they couldn’t hear each other in the monitors because I had the drunkest, loudest and most tone-deaf woman on the planet next to me for much of the show and she held it down in key and her “Do do dos” on metre about as well as these guys did during “Love the One You’re With.”
Crosby did sing “Almost Cut My Hair” with the conviction of a man who hasn’t, though. That’s gotta count for something. Otherwise…yikes.