Tom Petty Relishing In Relaxed Groove
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune - March 9, 1995
Tom Petty came out firing cliches Wednesday at the United Center, and it sounded just fine anyway.
"Love is a long road," he drawled, and his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, fell in behind him at a deliberate tempo, the favored travel speed most of the night.
On the subsequent "You Don't Know How It Feels," Petty and his accomplices settled into one of those comfortable, midlife Grateful Dead grooves, and made the first of several wildly received references to pot smoking. As Scott Thurston's harp choogled amiably, one could practically see the straw-haired Petty ambling down a dirt road, hands thrust in jeans pockets, chewing on a blade of grass.
He's made a career of playing a regular guy, and save for the ridiculous bullet belt he donned on the cover of his debut album (way back in 1976), he has conducted his business with remarkable, easygoing dignity.
Largely ignoring the middle portion of his career, Petty played a heavy dose of his most recent three studio albums and dug back for early hits such as "American Girl," "Breakdown," "Listen to Her Heart" and the still-ferocious "Refugee," all of which have aged remarkably well.
A good-natured tribute to Willie Dixon, "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," was a bit beyond the band, but "It's Good to Be King" brought the night's one true embarrassment: A statue of a flying dog was trolley-lined over the audience while a mirror ball spun for no apparent reason.
Such special effects are apparently designed to compensate for Petty's lack of showmanship. But his songs-cliches and all-resonate with the faithful, and they sang the words to most of them.
Perhaps "Into the Great Wide Open" goes down so easy because we've heard it all before: "The future was wide open" and "the sky was the limit" for the "rebel without a clue."
Petty lately has adopted a more relaxed, groove-oriented style on his albums, and this carried over in songs such as "Learning to Fly" and "Wildflowers," which replaced the Byrdsian rock that dominated earlier tours with a more folkish lilt.
Although original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch was missed with his head-bobbing Ringo Starr enthusiasm, the band was again impressive if self-effacing. Guitarist Mike Campbell handled everything from the dancing mandolin of "Yer So Bad" to the fierce solos of "Runnin' Down a Dream" with crackling clarity-and all the aplomb of a bank teller.
Campbell's demeanor perfectly suits the journeyman-like talents of his boss. Petty is difficult to condemn, but it's hard to muster passion for an artist who takes so few risks. In its place comes respect for a performer who radiates reliability, reassurance and ease.