Echoes of the Past, Present
By Mike Boehm
The Los Angeles Times — August 16, 1999
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers strike a balance between old glories and fresh inspiration.
In middle age, “damn the torpedoes” typically turns to “darn the torpedoes.” Certain compromises become necessary–especially if the midlifer is a touring superstar baby boom rocker trying to balance the hot fires of fresh creativity with the nostalgic glow that a good part of his audience expects from a concert.
Playing Friday in the first show of a two-night stand at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers made some compromises that were livable, if not entirely thrilling.
“Echo,” released last spring, is the most personal, penetrating and perhaps finest album of Petty’s career. That’s something to celebrate in a band that debuted in 1976 and stands as the last of rock’s arena-level old guard, a breed we expect to recycle old glories, not thrive with fresh inspiration.
The best way to celebrate would have been to build a concert around the new material, which delves into the welter of feelings, both despondent and hopeful, that come with a marital breakup and its aftermath. (Petty’s marriage of more than 20 years ended before the album was made.)
But “Echo” has not been one of his hottest sellers. Instead of steaming full-speed-ahead into his glorious present Friday, Petty chose a balanced, middle way suitable for a veteran rocker whose most prudent tactic is to please the fans with well-rendered favorites, thereby ensuring their ticket-buying loyalty into the future. The two-hour-plus set saw Petty and band navigate through four hits from the ’70s, six from the ’80s, five from the pre-“Echo” ’90s, two garage-rock songs from the 1960s, and four songs–not nearly enough–from the new album.
Balanced tactics yielded balanced results before a virtually sold-out house of about 15,000. The new stuff came across with a special spark. Some of the old stuff sounded thin. But overall, there was nothing tired about the recitation of hits; songs such as “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Free Fallin’,” “American Girl” and “You Got Lucky” are sturdy and reliable, and Petty and the Heartbreakers fired many of them up with long jams that were models of what rock classicism should be: precision married to passion.
To his credit, Petty clearly isn’t married to a give-the-people-what-they-want philosophy; otherwise he wouldn’t have omitted the seemingly obligatory career-making hits, “Refugee” and “Here Comes My Girl,” from his breakthrough “Damn the Torpedoes” album of 1979. Instead, he left room for guitarist Mike Campbell to ride a surf-rock wave at length, sending “Penetration” and other hoary spume-rock riffs into orbit.
(This was dessert for instrumental-rock fans, who got a tasty main course from the opening band, Nashville’s Los Straitjackets, who wear Mexican wrestling masks while doing a rocking, well-played update of a Ventures-style surf-and-twang instrumental repertoire–including a galloping salvage job on “My Heart Will Go On,” the sodden love theme from “Titanic.”)
Throughout the set, Campbell was like a great relay-race anchor, stepping up with rich tone and deft, economical playing to give songs a finishing kick.
Some of them needed it: The one flaw in the band’s sonic construct, which also benefited from Benmont Tench’s stately gleam on piano and organ, was a too-stolid, barely audible performance by bassist Howie Epstein. Rampant bass rumbling has ruined many a concert, but this show’s trebly mix could have used more heft and momentum in the low end.
Petty’s probing, still creatively vital side hit home with a closing, four-song sequence that included two of the “Echo” songs. It began with the lonely-in-a-barroom yearning for an estranged lover in “Top of the World,” and fell into bitterness with “You Got Lucky” and “Free Girl Now,” a headlong stomper from “Echo” that comes off on record as an up-with-women anthem, but which was completely turned around in meaning Friday when Petty deployed a sneer that dripped sarcasm.
The set-closing rocker “You Wreck Me” found our hero emerging from his blahs, ready to celebrate the renewal of his bruised heart. The mood continued in the encore with a joyful “Gloria,” in which Petty, an amiable but laconic host who mainly shuts up and sings (and adds to the instrumental firepower with some strong lead guitar work of his own), vamped charmingly with storytelling about the frustrations and thrills of desire unleashed.