They've Had Enough -- Just for Now
By Joel Selvin
The San Francisco Chronicle - February 16, 1997
Recharged after 20 Fillmore shows, Petty and the Heartbreakers may be back
Tom Petty rocked back on his heels and grinned at the image of Taj Mahal performing on "The Rolling Stones Rock 'n' Roll Circus" on the giant video screen. Petty was relaxing in the basement of the Bill Graham Presents office, which had been transformed into a glittering nightclub -- piles of barbecue and beverages, pillows on the floor, pool table -- to celebrate the 20-night sold-out Petty and the Heartbreakers engagement that ended February 7 at the Fillmore Auditorium. Petty, wearing a hand-painted necktie and flowered shirt, sported a smiley-face badge and had Mardi Gras beads wrapped around his wrist. His monthlong "residency" almost at an end, he spoke excitedly about the benefits of playing in an intimate, 1,100-capacity hall.
"Everybody should do this," he said. "It's going to be tough to go back to the arenas. I'm not saying we won't -- I'm sure we will -- but it'll never be the same. I wouldn't be surprised if we did this again next year."
Petty and the Heartbreakers, who customarily play places 10 to 20 times the size of the hallowed rock hall where Jimi Hendrix and Cream performed, used the engagement as a kind of rock 'n' roll workshop, blending vintage rock and R&B with Petty's own songs. Introducing at least one new song a night, the band played 85 different songs. Petty went so far as to rehearse the band during the run just to work in more tunes.
"We all feel like this has been the high point of our whole time as a group," Petty told the audience at the 3 ½-hour, 40-song performance that closed out the run.
Petty admitted he arrived for opening night feeling nervous.
"I was just off an airplane," he said. "We hadn't played in front of people in a long time. I couldn't grab hold of anything."
The second night an outburst of pepper spray in the audience derailed the performance just as it was steaming home to the finish. "The second night," said Petty, "was maybe one of my best nights . . . ever. In fact, it was going so good I kind of thought the fuse was going to blow."
Freed from the demands of a coliseum-size audience primed for a recitation of hits, Petty and the band -- guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein, drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Scott Thurston -- explored the corners of their own songbook. Petty and Campbell stretched recent numbers like "Good to be King" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" into guitar showcases and pulled out forgotten gems like "Mystery Man" or "Fooled Again (I Don't Like It)" from Petty's 1976 debut album.
Petty also indulged in the kind of spontaneity impossible in large-scale shows. "With this band, if they're too familiar, you have to throw them curves. Steve Ferrone still thinks it's audacious that I would play songs he doesn't know."
But it was the covers -- and the breadth of styles the band so easily encompassed -- that provided the most fun. Petty and his colleagues roamed comfortably from '50s rock 'n' roll to British Invasion blues-rock; from the pop soul sound of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" to the ripping, reverb-laden surf rock of Mike Campbell's nightly Ventures impression. The band developed "Gloria" as the encore, Petty working in references to pepper spray.
It was superstars pretending to be a bar band and you couldn't tell who was enjoying the impersonation more, band or audience. Petty delighted in unearthing nuggets like "I Want You Back Again," an obscure song by the Zombies. "It was a single or maybe a B-side," Petty said. "I saw the Zombies in 1965 and they played it. I think we did that one every night."
Songs by J.J. Cale, Booker T. and the MGs, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, even the Grateful Dead ("Friend of the Devil") made it into the repertoire. "There's not a lot of American groups who can play this music anymore," he said. "It's a joy for me to play it 'cause I love it so much."
When Petty initially emerged in 1976 -- the first flush of rock's new wave -- nothing indicated he would wind up the U.S. standard- bearer for rock traditionalism, even though his first album reflected an acute appreciation of the Byrds. At the Fillmore, in fact, Petty and band did eight songs with Byrdsman McGuinn ("We know all the Byrds songs," Petty said).
But over the years Petty has become one of the last bastions of authenticity in contemporary rock, as doggedly independent and single- minded in his pursuit of a personal vision as Neil Young, who himself holed up last year for several weeks of revitalizing dates at a Pacifica roadhouse. Petty and Young need the contact with an audience -- "I want them to see and hear what's making the noise," Petty said -- and they moved to reconnect with some fundamental part of their artistic selves.
Now the challenge for Petty is to carry this exhilaration into the rest of his work, but he is not in any hurry. He has no plans at all.
"I don't know," he said. "I should probably write some songs."