The Petty Archives

A Pretty-Good Output That Holds The Crowd
By Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer - June 28, 1999

Tom Petty may be only an OK singer and a passable guitarist with the stage presence of a microphone stand. But so what? For more than two decades now, he's been writing one instantly memorable radio hit after another, and the '60s-inspired straw-haired rocker and his erstwhile band, the Heartbreakers, have built a career that's among the most reliable in rock.

Petty is the kind of artist that you wish were just a little bit better - he's got reams of pretty good songs, but only a handful of great ones. The solidly built Byrdsian rockers with catchy choruses, sneering vocals and just-right Mike Campbell guitar solos just keep coming, however, and pretty soon you're singing along to a song that you had forgotten existed.

On Saturday at the not-quite-sold-out Waterfront Entertainment Centre in Camden, the intergenerational crowd (over-30s under the roof, under-30s on the lawn) couldn't decide when to take a beer break. Should we go now? No, that's "Mary Jane's Last Dance," the 1993 hit that had Kim Basinger in the video. Let's go . . . no, that's "I Won't Back Down," the grabby anti-anthem from Petty's 1989 solo album. OK ... no, wait, that's "Room at the Top," another good one from the new album, Echo.

The two-hour show did slack off toward the middle. The self-pitying "You Don't Know How It Feels" was fittingly lazy, and some of Petty's hits have aged better than others. "Listen to Her Heart" and "American Girl" remain Rickenbacker-fired classics, but Petty's donning the Mad Hatter's hat he wore in the video couldn't cover up the thinness of "Don't Come Around Here No More."

The Heartbreakers, anchored by Steve Ferrone on drums, are a terrific band. Playing on a stage hung with drip paintings to look like Jackson Pollock's living room, Campbell wielded his whammy bar with great dexterity on "You Got Lucky," Benmont Tench's Hammond B-3 rolled in right on time on "Don't Do Me Like That," and on one well-constructed tune after the next, all the pieces fit together. By the time the big hooks came out on "Free Fallin' " and "You Wreck Me," Petty had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Petty apparently likes Lucinda Williams better than himself.

"This is our favorite act of the night," he said in introducing the opening Southern gothic country-rocker. Williams concentrated on last year's exquisitely drawn Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, with her cracked angel's voice in heartbreaking shape and well-muscled road-tested band much the better for the addition of ex-Dylan guitarist John Jackson.