Tom Petty Caravan Rocks Its Heart Out
By Thom Duffy
Orlando Sentinel - July 24, 1987
NEW HAVEN, CONN. — An electric guitar slung at his waist, the singer prowled across the arena stage, his lanky blond hair falling to the shoulders of his black leather vest.
Behind him, a tattered cloth curtain, looking like a remnant from a traveling tent show, hung from the stage rigging. And around him, four band mates were playing at full tilt. Flailing at his tan guitar, knees bent, he leaped toward the microphone.
"Listen, little baby one of these days," he shouted in a nasal drawl. "Your pretty head's gonna turn my way ..." Standing on chairs, waving, many in the crowd of 5,000 fans in the New Haven Coliseum here cheered as if this were not the show's opening but its encore.
"Thank you very much," the singer said, lifting a cup off the drum platform in a toast to the audience. "My name is Tom Petty and these are the Heartbreakers. We want to officially welcome you to this rock 'n' roll caravan."
Petty and his band, of course, required no introduction. But his remark fit the tone of a summer tour that finds Heartbreakers playing rock 'n' roll again like some scrappy bar band driving for that big break. A band, say, like the Del Fuegos of Boston or the Georgia Satellites of Atlanta, the two acts opening for the Heartbreakers on what's been dubbed Rock 'n' Roll Caravan '87.
"The whole caravan has a real good vibe about it," Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell was saying backstage before the show. Wearing sunglasses inside the dressing room, he appeared every bit the part of Petty's guitar-slinging sidekick.
"Everybody's in a certain frame of mind and a rock 'n' roll attitude seems to permeate. It's great to walk out after the opening sets and have the crowd buzzing already."
The three bands will buzz into the Jacksonville Coliseum tonight for the first of four Florida shows that will conclude their three- month American tour.
The three-act, three-hour-plus concert is a welcome departure from the trend among arena rock groups in recent years to take the ticket money and run after predictable 90-minute performances. The Heartbreakers' caravan hearkens back to rock tours of the 1950s when multiple-act bills were the norm.
The Rock 'n' Roll Caravan also is reviving the musical spirit of the early rock tours. The Heart breakers, Georgia Satellites and Del Fuegos are among the best current examples of acts who have returned the electric guitar to prominence in rock 'n' roll.
Synthesizer technology marches on, and many of today's pop hits are built on slick, keyboard-generated sounds. But recently, perhaps in reaction to the rise of techno-pop, rock fans are again embracing the gutsy guitar sound of acts like the Gregg Allman Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mason Ruffner. And often these rockers and others play and sing with a distinctive Southern accent.
Petty's own Southern voice appeared in the show. "This here is an old, old song," he said as Campbell fired up the opening chords to "American Girl," a number from the Heartbreakers' 1976 debut album. Petty sang of a woman "raised on promises" venturing into the "great big world." During one verse, she stands alone on a highway: "She could hear the cars going by out on 441."
That's U.S. 441, the highway that runs through Orlando as the Orange Blossom Trail and north through Gainesville as 13th Street. The ribbon of asphalt passes the cinderblock bar called Dub's, where Petty, a Gainesville native, worked in the 1970s.
Petty and the Heartbreakers have been based in Los Angeles for more than a decade now. But they've not forgotten their Florida roots. They are arguably the best band to hail from this state since the Allman Brothers left Daytona Beach for Macon, Ga., and Lynyrd Skynyrd emerged from Jacksonville.
In 1985, Petty turned to his roots for the inspiration of the Heartbreakers' album Southern Accents. That LP was followed by a tour recorded for a live album, Pack Up the Plantation.
Southern Accents saw the Heartbreakers stretching musically in unexpected directions. Petty collaborated with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and the album featured horn sections and background vocalists later added to the live show. Critics praised the band's adventurousness but some fans felt the experiments softened the Heartbreakers' guitar-driven punch.
"We felt creatively stagnated a little bit and wanted to try to bring in some outside sounds," Campbell said of Southern Accents. "Now it's fresher to come back and break it back down to just the five guys."
The five guys sound as fresh in concert now as they ever have, judged against tours going back to their commercial breakthrough with the Damn the Torpedoes album in 1979. Petty smiled with satisfaction as the band created the roadhouse raucousness of "Jammin' Me," the rock radio hit from the Heartbreakers' newest album, Let Me Up (I've Had Enough).
Yet, a moment later, the band revealed a quiet side. As pool hall lamps descended from the overhead rigging, Campbell picked up an electric mandolin and bassist Howie Epstein stepped to the microphone to sing harmony. Petty, an acoustic guitar in hand, began "It'll All Work Out," a song that tells of another influence from the group's home state.
"In Florida, we grew up around a lot of bluegrass and country music," Campbell said. "Some of that stuff that our parents listened to when we were kids probably soaked in and now it's coming out."
What has set the Heartbreakers apart from the many other bands that tapped the same musical wellsprings in the South is the songwriting of Petty. Behind his sly drawl is the heart of a romantic optimist.
A highlight of the current show is the band's performance of an older Heartbreakers song, "Here Comes My Girl," which begins in somber, minor key. "You know, sometimes, I don't know why, but this old town just seems so hopeless," Petty sang, eyes closed behind the microphone. He confessed to "worrying about some silly little things that don't add up to nothing."
Then the song slowly brightened as the music built in intensity. And by the time Petty reached the chorus, drummer Stan Lynch had created a crescendo, Petty and Campbell were playing shimmering, stately chords and Benmont Tench's piano cascaded above the entire arrangement.
Yet Petty's point of view has widened considerably since he wrote that simple love song. That was clear at this concert as the normally reticent singer began to talk, in a mixture of humor and earnestness, about newfound concerns.
Speaking of his time on the road, Petty said, "I get a fair assessment of America out of the window of our bus." And for several minutes, his remarks touched upon the Iran-contra hearings, the scams of televangelists, his fear of nuclear power and other issues. The talk introduced a sparkling and poignant version of the 1967 Buffalo Springfield protest song "For What It's Worth."
"Tom's more comfortable with himself -- playing, singing and talking," Campbell said. "I guess he's got a few things on his mind and he wants to share them. We're just all on a real positive cycle now where everybody's happy to be here and nobody's got any demons they're obsessed with."
The Heartbreakers may have worked out those demons -- and Petty may have found his new confidence to talk of topical concerns -- while touring last year with Bob Dylan.
"We were all affected by Bob,'' said Campbell. In the months preceding the collaboration, he said, ''we were a little unfocused as a group. That tour gave us a purpose without the need for going out and selling ourselves, just leaving Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the shelf for a while and being a backup band for Bob. As we were doing that, we started to tune into one another again as a band. We just sort of fell into a groove."
The groove was wild and joyous as the Heartbreakers rocked toward the conclusion of the show here. "Well, you make me want to shout!" Petty yelled, whirling at the mike as the band played the old Isley Brothers hit, "Shout." Then it was on to the cathartic cry of "Refugee." With the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" as the first encore, the Heartbreakers paid tribute to the fire of British punk. But the night's final number was Chuck Berry's "Bye Bye Johnny," another nod to Southern roots.
"Sometimes, after you've made five or six albums, you can get on each other's nerves," Campbell said. "It's like a marriage or a family. But you get through that and come back to square one. That's kind of where we are now. Everybody feels like we just got together and it's a lot of fun out there."
Few in the crowd, carried away by the caravan for the night, would have disagreed.