The Petty Archives

Petty animated, but concert shows gimmicks
By Marty Racine
Houston Chronicle - Friday, November 1, 1991

Tom Petty closed the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands for the season with a two-hour set that fluctuated between greatness and gimmickry.

Autumn arrived just in time Wednesday night to make the outdoor concert a pleasant experience. It was a blowout before a near-capacity bunch of rowdies.

Internal combustion liquids seemed preferred, judging from the behavior on the hill, where one fan took general admission seating to heart and went tumbling backward about 30 feet into a trash can before somersaulting to his feet and calling for more beer.

Ah, yes, rock 'n' roll, don't you just love it? Tom Petty does.

Touring behind his new album, Into the Great Wide Open, the blond, floppy-looking Petty was more animated than I've seen him over the course of 15 years. His 15-year-old Heartbreakers also were the best I'd ever heard them, including their impressive Summit show two years ago with Full Moon Fever.

This performance, however, was punctuated by contradictions. Among them:

While The Great Wide Open remains one of Petty's weakest recordings, its songs were the strongest Wednesday, including Out in the Cold, Learning to Fly and Built to Last. By contrast, Petty's '78 anthem American Girl was dished off in a couple minutes as an "acoustic" number.

The new album is traditionally given "the treatment" in concert, but the disparity here was striking.

Petty talked a good game of populism, but circumstances suggested otherwise.

During the first few tunes the star was especially talkative. Before Learning to Fly he announced that no one is sponsoring him (which puts him in a privileged class that includes Neil Young). "If the country is going to be what it was," he intoned, "we should support small business."

In the same rap, though, Petty reflected, "No matter what you do in life you'll always be better off turning your mind to a rock 'n' roll station."

No matter that rock 'n' roll radio is such a big business that art and music are secondary to the ratings game. Hey, Tom, to heck with radio!

And at a time when Petty, formerly the picture of reserved cool onstage, has actually learned to connect with the audience, he trivialized that relationship with a series of unneeded gimmicks.

Among them were exaggerated calls for hand-clapping, a lighted treasure chest from which he pulled out his trademark top hat, an oversized peace sign, a "psychedelic monster" handing him a harmonica, a giant treehouse backdrop from which Petty emerged to conduct the band, and strobe lighting effects.

All amounted to a showbiz cheesiness that undermined the quiet rapport he had built. Petty almost got defensive: "Sorry about having a good time; I try to enjoy myself."

OK, let's enjoy. Breakdown, with Mike Campbell's slinky guitar riffs, was a mover. Free Fallin', The Waiting, You Got Lucky and I Won't Back Down were tops. The Count 5's Psychotic Reaction bristled with Howie Epstein's bass lines and Stan Lynch's backbeat. Benmont Tench , a colorful accomplice throughout, unleashed a hard-pounding boogie-woogie on the piano.

"Tonight I feel I can do whatever I want," Petty explained at one point. After a long climb to the top, he was in the great wide open, with a cool breeze in his face.