The Petty Archives

Petty delivers dream concert
By Marty Racine
Houston Chronicle - Tuesday, September 21, 1999

Tom Petty was simply running down a dream. His fans at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands Sunday night worked overtime to make it come true.

Petty, a rock 'n' roll survivor thanks to an ageless, immutable sound and a competitor's resolve, emerged triumphant in a scintillating two-hour performance striking for its pacing and aural texture.

But half the credit for a memorable evening - opened auspiciously with celebratory, roof-raising gospel by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama - goes to the audience. This was a feisty, good-time, rough-and-ready rock 'n' roll crowd he likes of which have nearly become extinct at high-dollar concerts.

The crowd sang on the choruses. It tossed Petty trademark hats onto the stage. It stomped and hooted and screamed until hoarse, and it drummed on chairs for an encore. Its collective voice informed and inspired the music to reach beyond itself, and Petty, a pretty sly character who knows how to squeeze affection from a gathering, appeared thoroughly moved.

By symbiosis this was arena-rock at its best.

Petty and his Heartbreakers, one of the most respected "backing" bands in rock history, are touring on their latest album, "Echo." And on this night, before this audience, with the stage bathed in candlelight and exotic hues from oversized Chinese lanterns, the new material was greeted with enthusiasm usually reserved for the old hits.

"Free Girl Now" was a rousing declaration. "Swingin"' rocked with purpose. And guitarist Mike Campbell sang a surprisingly strong lead on "I Don't Wanna Fight."

Of the older tunes, Campbell, the rare rock guitarist who doesn't waste a note, dropped a hot solo on "Runnin' Down a Dream." His bluesy solo weaved through the slippery rhythms of "Breakdown," and that song's nucleus was further plumbed by a call-and-response from the audience on the repetitive figure that shouts, "It's all right!"

Campbell switched to mandolin and Petty from electric to acoustic guitar on "I Won't Back Down," with the crowd carrying the verse and chorus as if it were the song's steward.

Introducing "Listen to Her Heart, Petty" - rather unnecessarily - commented, "I had a dream that I heard the biggest noise ever recorded in history." Perhaps jet fighters actually produce more rumble than the din that ensued. Then the Heartbreakers - also keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein, guitarist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone - really wailed.

A highlight of highlights was "It's Good To Be King," a ballad with Campbell on a double-necked guitar that built to a crescendo with anthemlike power recalling the treatment reserved for the likes of "Freebird" or "Stairway to Heaven."

Another heavy hitter was "You Got Lucky," with Tench, whose playing is inconspicuously brilliant, coloring the framework.

The encore, a fully realized, old-fashioned curtain-call at audience insistence, netted "Free Fallin';" an extended "Gloria," with Petty dealing a lascivious if humorous rap; and the band's standard, "American Girl."

By then, the crowd had begun to absorb the set's enormity. It had been a masterfully conducted affair delivered with the star's customary lean and the band's rich, sculptured sound.

The Florida-born Petty has an unparalleled grasp of the arena- rock form as it evolved in the '70s. Thus, he has outlasted punk, new wave and the dinosaurs of his own era. And the Heartbreakers have surmounted the inevitable problems that strain any rock 'n' roll band.

That's the stuff of dreams.