Tom Petty: Human Jukebox
By Jonathan Perry
The Boston Phoenix - July 15, 1999
Guess it was around the halfway mark of Tom Petty's two hour-plus, 23-song set at the Tweeter Center Friday night that the question struck me: even if we could stay here and hang with Tom and his Heartbreakers all night -- and a lot of folks looked like they'd be up for it -- would this human jukebox ever run out of hits? In the first 15 minutes alone, Petty gave us gleaming readings of "Jammin' Me," "Running Down A Dream," "Breakdown," and a good-as-gold new rocker, "Swingin'," from the superb new Echo (Warner Bros.) album.
Springsteen always gets the credit as being the archetypal symbol of American rock -- perhaps justifiably so -- but single for single, is there anybody who's made more consistently beloved, enduring American rock and roll than Petty? Neil Young doesn't count (he's from Canada). Mellencamp spent too many years as Johnny Cougar to qualify. Okay, maybe Springsteen. But Tom's a close second. And, like his assortment of free-fallin' American girls, refugees, and the ragtag rebels who won't back down, underdog's a role that's always suited Petty particularly well -- even if at this point, given his hugely successful career, it's a fictitious one.
This is Petty's first tour in four years, but during the first of a two-night stand in Mansfield, he and his long-time Heartbreakers (sans drummer Stan Lynch) -- understated lead guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Howie Epstein, and keyboardist Benmont Tench -- played as if they'd never been away. Exuding the casual, down-to-earth nobility of a self-made king, Petty sauntered on stage after opener Lucinda Williams's quicksilver set and was at once his drawling, sly self. He plucked his Mad Hatter derby from a cedar chest for the Eastern-tinged psychedelia of "Don't Come Around Here No More." And he traded hot-wired guitar licks with Campbell on "American Girl," which didn't come near showing its 23 years of age.
If Petty leaned a bit heavily on his hits and shortchanged the new stuff, well, it was probably a safety precaution. He would never have made it back to the hotel alive without fulfilling his civic duty to deliver "Refugee," "Free Fallin'," and the tender, acoustic reading of "Learning To Fly" that ended the two-encore evening on a balmy, majestic note. Then, with us out of time and quarters, the human jukebox was gone, headed back to his room at the top of the world.