By Jim Farber
New York Daily News - Wednesday, March 22, 1995
For good and bad as a singer and songwriter, the star has learned to fly, but his band rarely took wing at Garden show.
You won't find a less assuming creature on an arena stage than Tom Petty. At Madison Square Garden on Monday, Petty and his band, the Heartbreakers, shuffled through two hours of affable boogie while the star sang in the wry, measured tones of a local raconteur out to shoot the breeze.
It's not the kind of thing that makes for high thrills or great glamor. But for Petty, the lack of flash reveals his character as surely as it invites a critique.
Even after living in L.A. for more than 20 years, Petty and the Heartbreakers still mosey through their shows with the slow gait of native Floridians. As usual, even their most potentially rousing numbers this night (like "Refugee" or "Listen to Her Heart") lacked muscle in the riffs and punch in the drums. New skinman Steve Ferrone proved himself as plod-prone as his predecessor, Stan Lynch.
Only in "Running Down a Dream" held until just before the encore did the group pull out the stops, letting their guitars and drums pound and soar with gusto.
Yet throughout the evening, Petty's voice carried undeniable conviction, and his material showed a clear intelligence, earning him a cool respect regardless.
He deserved the kudos even more considering the odd lure that helped sell the show out to begin with: namely, Petty's unlikely role as one of music video's most consistent stars.
Nearly every song at this show gained a key part of its recognition from a corresponding video. That's a considerable surprise since Petty himself hasn't an ounce of physical dash.
To compensate, Petty has always commissioned smart visuals while casting himself in an appropriate role as the clips' sly commentator, a clever elder.
Ironically, playing this grown-up role has made Petty the most contemporary-seeming veteran rocker around. No other artist of Petty's age 43 can lay claim to an audience that applauds his recent material with more gusto than his oldies, making him rock's most adaptable dinosaur. Petty emphasized the point live by greatly favoring songs form his last three releases, to the apparent disappointment of few.
Of course, one key appeal of those albums comes from the pert production of Jeff Lynne and Rick Rubin. This show certainly could have used their sheen and spring.
At times, the loss really dragged things down. Several times, Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell favored grindingly slow solos. Early on, a tepid surf-rock instrumental junked the pace. So did a version of the blues classic "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" that may have been the laziest take in history.
Small wonder the evening's highlight arrived when the band dropped any pretense of rocking out during their acoustic section.
In numbers like "Time to Get Going" or "Learning to Fly," Petty had only his vocal and the song to rely on, which proved more than enough. The contemplative mood greatly flattered material from Petty's latest work, "Wildflowers," the most intimate and vulnerable album of his career.
Perhaps the ideal tour to support it wouldn't have involved the Heartbreakers at all; better he should have performed an unplugged solo show. That way Petty could have shown his greatest strengths as a writer of nimble ironies and a singer of aching melodies.