Tom Petty Concert Relies on Gimmicks
By John Holzwarth
The Colgate Maroon - Tuesday, September 24, 1991
The psychedelic dragon, a gnarled old tree, and perhaps the coolest hat box I've ever seen made Tom Petty's performance in Albany Saturday night thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, at times it seemed that it was the gimmicks that succeeded in spite of the performance, rather than the other way around.
Between a successful reunion album with the Heartbreakers -- Petty's bandmates since debuting in the mid-seventies -- and a massively popular solo album roughly two years ago, Petty should be riding high. Perhaps the success of these efforts raised expectations of the show beyond reason. But the band that took the stage at the Knickerbocker Arena could hardly pass for the band that has been thrilling rock fans with its studio work for so long.
The concert focused largely on the new release and its predecessor, Full Moon Fever, as if the band dreaded playing anything of its older days. The show opened with two new tracks, then followed with Petty's solo hits "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'." The concert included several more tracks from the new album, including the singles "Learning to Fly" and "Out in the Cold."
The show also included "Running Down a Dream," "Yer So Bad," and "Love Is a Long Road" from Full Moon Fever.
Meanwhile, not only were many Petty standards that fans wished to hear left out of the set, but some that were played were rushed through in record time.
Most notably, about halfway through the show, Petty entered a brief acoustic set of his "classics." He began with a fairly smooth version of "Listen to Her Heart," and moved into a slow, shortened rendition of "American Girl," which got the crowd singing. He then moved into his traditional concert singalong -- "Breakdown." However, this rendition was pitifully short, stopping unnaturally after one verse and one chorus. It left the crowd wanting more.
A few other classics came later, including "You Got Lucky" and "Don't Do Me Like That." Most impressive was the encore-opener of "The Waiting," which began slowly, encouraging the crowd to join in, before picking up at the end. This version was quite well arranged.
But for the most part, the band was flat and lifeless. Guitarist Mike Campbell was particularly disappointing, bringing all the raw enthusiasm of a cinder block with him to the show. On some solos, he adequately copied his own studio work, but without exercising his freedom to add a twist or two.
Unfortunately, his improvisations were worse. Rather than sticking with the simple, emotion-filled solos that characterize much of his finest studio work (think of the simple solos he designed for "I Won't Back Down," or the dripping emotional notes he added to Don Henley's "Heart of the Matter"), he tried to impress the crowd with wilder histrionics that generally went nowhere.
The band did perform a few fun "rockabilly" type of numbers, and a surprise cover of the Rolling Stones' "It's All Over Now." But even the "rockabilly" began to drift together and sound unoriginal.
What saved the show, if anything, was the ridiculous and random set and props. The set consisted of a tree, with stairs running up the side and a door at the top, that resembled a giant Swiss Family Robinson playhouse.
At one completely random moment (albeit one that probably occurs at every stop on the tour) a creature that Petty simply called "the psychedelic dragon" came out of the tree to bring him his harmonica. Random, but absolutely hysterical.
Then, during a well-received version of "Don't Come Around Here No More," Petty ventured into a huge, blowing trunk, and pulled out his trademark hat. Then, in an amusing sequence played out under a strobe light, Petty warded off three random men with a giant orange peace symbol. Random, but still funny.
However by the time the show reached its close -- stretching barely two hours, encore included -- the gimmicks just weren't enough. Funny as parts of the show were, I was left with the distinct impression that the band wasn't having a terribly good time. The music was good, but for the most part, far from the greatness that Petty and his hand have been known to achieve in the studio.