Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
October 2, 2010
Review by Shawn Perry
Sitting here at the Verizon Amphitheater in Irvine, amongst a gathering of some 20,000, I reminded of two friends, two Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fans. My buddy Tom (a different Tom) championed the group back in the 80s and I sat at the complete opposite end of the table. I thought Petty and his Heartbreakers were a bit derivative, even a little tedious. Looking back, I’m not even sure why. Maybe it had something to do with the loads of airtime they were getting on the local FM dial.
I eventually started to appreciate Tom Petty toward the end of the 80s and into the 90s. Maybe that had something to do with the Traveling Wilburys and Full Moon Fever. Then I picked up Wildflowers, and I was hooked. By the time Echo came out, I realized it was time to go see what all the fuss was about. And that’s where Kenny, my other friend, comes in.
Kenny was a few years younger than me, but he had a soft spot for and an in-depth knowledge of older music. He adored the Beatles, which formed a strong bond between us — so much so that he contributed the lead article to Vintage Rock the day the site launched on June 1, 1997 — the 30th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band. Over the next few years, he wrote a number of reviews for the site.
In 2002, we both fell under the spell of the vastly underrated Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, The Last DJ. We latched onto every promo and every bootleg we could wrap our ears around. We went to the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. to see the band perform the album live in its entirety with a full orchestra (see Kenny’s review). A couple of months later when Petty and the Heartbreakers returned to play the Forum, Kenny and I were there again to root them on.
After 2005, I fell out of touch with Kenny. More recently, I was sad to learn he passed away. I miss his insights on music and I’m disappointed he didn’t get to hear Mojo, the first Petty and Heartbreakers studio album since The Last DJ (2006's Highway Companion is a Tom Petty solo album). I think he would have loved it. And more than likely, he would have been here tonight in Irvine to see one of the last shows of the tour.
I’ve been coming to the Verizon Amphitheater (formerly known as Irvine Meadows before it was corporationalized) for over 25 years, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it filled with so many people. Surely having ZZ Top as an opener helped, but Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of the last bands from the 70s that can still pack ‘em in on their own.
ZZ Top played a satisfying hour-long or so set that got the juices flowing. They had headlined nearby Pacific Amphitheatre over the summer (see my review), and were called in to replace Joe Cocker, who was originally scheduled to open. It’s not often you get two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers on the same bill, and ZZ Top came out in a blaze of glory, spinning a flurry crop-dusted crispies.
Come 9:00, the lights dimmed and Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Steve Ferrone and Scott Thurston made their way to the stage. Without so much as a whisper, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ special mix of sonic-sicles filled the night air.
The first four tunes comprised a virtual hitfest — “Listen To Her Heart,” from the group’s 1978 sophomore release, You’re Gonna Get It, along with three Petty solo numbers: “You Don't Know How It Feels,” “I Won't Back Down” and “Free Fallin',” the singer's longest charted single co-written with Jeff Lynne.
In between fan favorites, the band paid tribute to their roots with a couple of zesty covers. Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” in the hands of a proper band, is a song meant for the concert stage. Tonight, it provided the first glimpse of Campbell’s unyielding guitar antics. Chuck Berry’s “Carol” is, of course, the definitive standard. One would be hard-pressed to put tonight’s version up against Berry or the Stones, but it seemed like a good time to stretch out and test the waters.
A worthy, interactive workout of “Breakdown,” followed by a quick round of band member intros announced in Petty’s own inimitable style, and then the group did something many of their peers avoid these days: They played new music. This was just what I had been waiting for.
Like The Last DJ, Mojo cuts a deeper swath piled high with slabs of heavy, distorted guitars. For the first time tonight, a large portion of the crowd sat down or went for a beer run — typical behavior when the new, unfamiliar stuff is trotted out. Not me. I stayed to watch the fireworks.
At this point I took stock of the spectacle. Between Petty, all in black with solid red accents including the shoes, and Campbell — the two of them have an impressive arsenal of axes. Campbell switched off between his beloved Ricky and Tele throughout the first part of the show, while Petty seemed to gravitate toward an array of Gibson hollow bodies. Blair and Thurston sort of stay in their area and maintain an even keel. Certainly, Ferrone has to be one of the best pace-setters in the biz. And Benmont Tench? His MVP status is untouchable.
For new barn burners like “Jefferson Jericho Blues” and “Good Enough,” the big guns and lasers came out. The jaunty “Running Man’s Bible” cruised with Tench’s never-a-bum-note touch is at its core. But you had to hold onto the railings for “I Should Have Known It,” a heavy metal, heartbreakin’ harbinger aping dutiful nods and winks in the direction of Led Zeppelin. Like Jimmy Page’s second cousin, Campbell and his sunburst Les Paul took an extended dance at the break, slaying dragons and kicking asses in the first five rows.
My only complaint is that they didn’t play more from Mojo, especially the monumentally moving “Something Good Coming.”
Which isn’t to say I wasn’t primed for more well-worn reliables. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers can make all the noise they want in the studio, but their expansive catalog carries certain responsibilities. In some ways, they’re like the Stones in what they have to play and what they want to play. Fortunately, all the songs are good and durable enough to uphold the reruns.
So I joined the faithful in serenading those around me with the refrain from “Learning To Fly.” I yelled the chorus unison with a few drunks on “Refugee.” And for the double deuce encore of “Runnin’ Down A Dream” and “American Girl,” I bopped and bowed in time with a falling star. It all made for an easy exit down the hill and to the car. I called Tom to share the news, even held up my cell phone for a couple of bars. And I looked up at the moon and wished Kenny could have stuck around a little while longer to witness the boundless joy of a pure vintage rock band.