Petty preaches gospel of rock ‘n’ roll
By Philip Elwood
The San Francisco Chronicle — January 12, 1997
Tom Petty kicked off his 20-concert run at the Fillmore on Friday night with a grand evening of the sort of music he and his Heartbreakers do best – rock ‘n’ roll tinged with R&B, rockabilly, ballads and occasional bits of harder, 1970s rock.
Besides presenting a number of Petty’s originals, the 95-minute set roamed the American musical spectrum from Buddy Holly to John Mayall and the Rolling Stones; Bo Diddley to the Zombies to Ray Charles.
There were few older heads bobbing in the crowded stand-up, “festival seating” audience on the Fillmore’s floor – for them, the song selections, solid syncopations and memorable solos of the Heartbreakers were reminders that much of what the young 1990s fans think of as “rock” has little connection with the gut-level roots music that the lively Petty dispenses with such conviction and glee.
Petty’s satisfying program was also a reminder that it wasn’t all that long ago that “rock” didn’t imply “hard” rock, unintelligible lyrics and audio overkill.
Friday’s concert, in fact, which opened with a set by Jakob Dylan’s “Wallflowers” band, inadvertently provided an apt comparison – Dylan’s voice and lyrics were overwhelmed by the high-gain amplification of his septet, whereas Petty’s voice, whether singing sentimental southern ballads in the “Lonely Tonight” style or rowdy rock ‘n’ rollers like his “Runnin’ Down a Dream” carried cleanly over the quite marvelous accompaniment of brilliant guitarist Mike Campell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein and drummer Steve Ferrone.
As if maintaining the tradition of three- to four-minute renditions as required on recordings (and commercial radio) in the decades when the 45 rpm “single” disc reigned supreme, Petty keeps his live renditions short, expanding them only for an extended solo or such delights as the spontaneous audience sing-alongs on such as his “Free Falling” or the Stones’ “Time is on My Side.”
Guitarist Campbell remains a magnificent instrumentalist both in solo and backup playing (particularly with Petty’s vocals) – he, Tench and Epstein have been the core of the Heartbreakers since the beginning, 21 years ago. They’re proof that “the band that stays together plays (and thinks, musically) together.”
Petty and his pals enjoy breaking the beat, moving from a laid-back 2 / 4 tempo to an up four-beat and, on something like the Zombies’ “I Want You Back,” they insert a hesitation waltz beat. Following that 1967 hit, Campbell switched from his double-neck Martin guitar to a classic white Fender Jazzmaster and took the lead on the theme from “Goldfinger.” A definitive performance by all.
Besides a beautifully turned, soul-funk version of Bo Diddley’s good-time “Diddy Wah Diddy” which gave Tench some solo space, Petty included, somewhat surprisingly, Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” using the “Ray Charles At Newport” rendition as a guide. (Too bad saxist Fathead Newman, who played on the Fillmore stage Wednesday with the “Kansas City All Star Band,” didn’t hang around for a couple of days. He might have played “I Got A Woman” with Petty – his solo was a high point of Charles’ Newport performance, 39 years ago.)
The most recent title included on the show was “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” with some organ and harmonica behind Petty’s vocal and subtle shimmying, and for sheer good rockin’, “King’s Highway” seemed to get the noisiest audience approval. The crowd was with him, into the show, all night; they even joined Petty’s vocal on “Won’t Back Down,” first number on the program.
Petty, as always, was loose but businesslike. He’s changing songs on these Fillmore shows every night and probably will have occasional guests drop by. All the remaining 19 Fillmore concerts, in clumps of two or three, through February 6-7, are sold out.
For Petty, the Heartbreakers and his audiences, these performances are a gathering of the congregation, a reaffirmation of faith – in the rock ‘n’ roll gospel.