At GM Place on Tuesday, June 8
Man, I gotta quit living in the past, because my expectations are just too damn high. Two of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Commodore in 1978 and then Petty again—with Bob Dylan—at Berkeley, California’s Greek Theatre in ’84. Both shows left me totally drained and in awe of the elevating power of rock ’n’ roll, so that now whenever I hear the words “Tom Petty live” I perk up like Pavlov’s pup at the sound of a bell.
Tom Petty spoiled me rotten, I have to say, but now it seems like the party’s over. Not that his show at GM Place sucked, because Tom Petty could never suck: his songs are too good and his band too tight. But time is catching up with the 59-year-old rocker, and seriously sapping the spark that once made him brilliant on stage.
And would it have killed him to play a few more hits?
Petty took to the stage in the casual garb he’s known for—including blue jeans and cowboy boots—and started things off on a winning note with 1991’s “Kings Highway”. It took no time at all for his crack band—lead guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair, keyboardist Benmont Tench, rhythm guitarist/pianist/harmonica player Scott Thurston, and drummer Steve Ferrone—to transform into a well-oiled machine that then headed down the road with the rambling (in a good way) “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. When Petty crooned “let’s roll another joint” the jay-smokers in the crowd took it as their cue to light up, so they were soon in the right frame of mind to enjoy the super-catchy “I Won’t Back Down” from Petty’s first solo (i.e. non-Heartbreakers) album, 1989’s Full Moon Fever.
“I’m gonna do this song for all the young lovers out there,” Petty proclaimed while introducing another Fever hit, “Free Fallin’?”. Then he and long-time picker Campbell laid some seriously jangly Rickenbacker action on that gently rocking number before Petty grabbed a pair of maracas and Campbell donned a Sunburst Les Paul for Peter Green’s late-’60s riff-rock classic “Oh Well”.
One of the best-received songs of Petty’s two-hour performance was “Breakdown”, the slinky hit from the Heartbreakers’ self-titled ’76 debut. The crowd seemed totally up for a taste of his early work, but Petty refused to linger long there. It would have been great to hear ’70s gems like “American Girl”, “Magnolia”, or “Listen to Her Heart”, but it was not to be. He didn’t play any songs from 1978’s stunning You’re Gonna Get It! and only one from his breakthrough album of ’79, Damn the Torpedoes.
Instead of giving the people what they wanted, Petty played half a dozen songs in a row that nobody knew, tracks from his upcoming release, Mojo. The new stuff was impressive—especially the cosmic, grooving “First Flash of Freedom” (which incorporated the use of green lasers) and the pulsating, bass-driven “Running Man’s Bible”—but the audience seemed a little cowed by the overdose of alien material. By the time Petty grabbed a black acoustic guitar and started strumming the familiar chords of the poignant “Learning to Fly”, the crowd was itching for something recognizable, and it celebrated the reconnect by singing joyfully along on the chorus. The ever-thankful Petty rewarded their patience with the quirky pop ditty “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and—apparently picking up on the intense psychic vibes I was sending out—the exhilarating “Refugee”.
For a little while there, the party was back on—and raging.