Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

October 10, 2014
The Forum
Los Angeles, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon

Out of all the bands I’ve gone to see over the years, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers may well be the most quintessentially authentic, true-to the-heart rock & roll band there is. Yes, they’ve been around for nearly 40 years, but they don’t come across as an over-the-hill nostalgic act. Well coiffed with a suave and comfortable vibe; armed with more guitars than a music store has in their inventory; little room for fireworks or over-the-top stage gimmickry at the expense of a few sleight-of-hand drawls from Petty and first-class riffs and rides through expansive spaces, rich in melody and catchy choruses — it all bubbled to the surface at the Forum.

As Petty would remind everyone throughout the night, Los Angeles is home to the band; it’s where he and the Heartbreakers came together in 1975 and found their way to stardom. So tonight, and the night that followed, were set for a pair of home-cooked shows. To whet everyone’s appetite, Steve Winwood and his band were up first. Having seen him earlier in the year (see my review), I already knew he and the group of musicians who accompanied him — drummer Richard Bailey, guitarist Jose Neto, Paul Booth on horns and keys and percussionist Edson "Cafe" Da Silva — would give everyone in the half-filled room a solid spin for their money.

Let’s just say that every one of the nine songs Winwood played over the next hour has been an AM hit or a FM staple. Each chapter of Winwood’s career was covered: The set was book-ended with two of his biggest hits with the Spencer Davis Group — a brisk “I’m A Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.” And you can bet this sandwich packed plenty of beef — from the pair of Blind Faith tunes, “Can't Find My Way Home” and “Had To Cry Today,” to the best of Traffic — “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys,” “Empty Pages” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

With the exception of his first Number One hit, 1986’s “Higher Love,” the songs were jazzier, funkier and smoother than their studio counterparts. Winwood switched between a Hammond B3 and Fender Telecaster, and blew everyone away at how good he is as both a keyboardist and lead guitarist. He pulled off some Clapton-like licks on “Had To Cry Today” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Meanwhile, Neto dazzled the audience with his flamenco-flavored sweeps at the break of Booth’s haunting horns on “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys.” The groove was set in motion by Bailey and Da Silva, allowing Winwood to be free to roam the aural landscape without losing the pace.

By the end of Winwood’s set, the Forum was finally filled with an anxious and eager sold-out crowd. Aside from the white drooping backdrop and 30 or so movie studio Fresnel-style spotlights overhead and around the stage, there was little left to the imagination — unless you’re a gearhead. Any musician surveying the vintage amps, keys, and guitars would appreciate a stage full of toys, beyond the actual music. And because Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are particular about their instruments and their sound, it was obvious they were more than prepared to take full advantage of the Forum’s improved acoustics.

The lights came down just after nine just as the last notes of Muddy Waters’ "Got My Mojo Working" filtered out, prompting the mixed crowd of thirty-somethings to middle-agers to spring to their feet with anticipation and excitement. And there they were: Petty in a blue velvet coat, red collared shirt, primped-up jeans and ankle-high, fringeless hippie boots, and Mike Campbell in a pair of sunglasses, a hat, dreads and a haughty swagger. Keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston were a little more nondescript but just as snappy and debonair. Drummer Steve Ferrone wore a polo shirt and sat at the ready behind his kit. These last four Heartbreakers played like heaven and never moved from their designated posts.

Clearly all eyes were on Petty and Campbell as they kicked things up with a joyous rendition of the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star.” Unlike many of their contemporaries, the band has a new album to promote. Hypnotic Eye is brimming with potent riffs and insightful lyrics, but it hasn’t quite matched the numbers of Damn The Torpedoes or Full Moon Fever. Even so, three of its songs — “American Dream Plan B,” the Bo Diddley-inspired “Forgotten Man” and “Shadow People” — were seamlessly slotted into the setlist.

Yeah, a few people sat down to check their text messages, and likely a few more headed to the bar or bathroom. These songs, like so many of recent years, stack up nice and neat next to the better known hits of the 20th Century. It would have been cool to even hear something else from say, Mojo or The Last DJ, but you have to consider there are 16 albums to pick from and only a two-hour show, so the setlist can’t be hung out to arbitrary selection.

For most in attendance, it was really about the high-water marks of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ storied career. And, again, because the show was limited to two hours, someone’s favorite song probably wasn’t going to get played. The band’s first single, “Breakdown” was absent, but an encore of “American Girl” made up for it. Some like “Free Fallin'” and “Refugee” are pretty much played on a regular basis, while a groovin' cover of Boyce and Hart's “(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone” was a pleasant surprise.

What I marveled at most, besides slam-dunks at practically every turn, were the variety of guitars Petty and Campbell played. Both brandished Gretsch G6199 Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbirds (designed by Bo Diddley in 1959; modified by ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons more recently) for “You Get Me High.” They paired up with a couple of Gibson Firebirds for “Runnin' Down a Dream.” Petty favored a variety of Fender Telecasters, Gibson SGs and acoustics; Campbell went further, and changed out a guitar for every song — from his customized hollow-body Duesenberg to a range of Rickenbackers to a Gibson Flying V, SG and Les Paul to a teardrop-shaped Vox to some I couldn’t begin to identify. He deservedly gets much of the credit for peeling off those slinky Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers leads, but Petty is no slouch when it comes to bending the strings.

As he fluttered on an acoustic before a mellow “Rebel,” Petty told the crowd how exciting it was to play in his adopted home of Los Angeles. “Everyone I ever owed money to is backstage,” he quipped. Later, this time with another acoustic, he had the whole audience singing “Learning To Fly.” You have to figure that lesson was learned long ago, everyone eventually got paid, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers will continue to run down dreams, traverse highways and take rock & roll as far as it can go until it eventually — if ever — runs out of gas.

 

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