The Petty Archives

Petty fine-tunes industry message
By Michael D. Clark
Houston Chronicle - Monday, November 18, 2002

Pearl Jam challenged Ticketmaster's control of the concert industry eight years ago by touring without the ticket distributor's support. The coup failed, but the process helped launch a Justice Department antitrust investigation (later dropped) and got marquee artists like Tom Petty to join the fight.

It's taken Petty a few years to strap on his gloves. He spent the latter-half of the '90s regrouping the Heartbreakers and working through a divorce. Friday night at the Compaq Center, however, he came freshlyshaved, nattily dressed and ready to take on the music industry.

The battle for artistic freedom is the central focus of his new concept album The Last DJ. But like a taped speech or political form letter, it is a pre-conceived manifesto. By avoiding corporate sponsors, selling some tickets (albeit through Ticketmaster) for less than $20 and giving a passionate performance, his live actions spoke louder than recorded word.

It's hard to determine if Petty's anti-corporate crusade will make a difference or fade like Pearl Jam's efforts. The result of his decision not to promote the show through marketing moguls Clear Channel Entertainment was obvious: The Compaq Center was half-full at best.

On the other hand, those who showed up saw Petty and the Heartbreakers performing music they believe in with a zeal not seen since since the mid-'90s.

Now remarried, Petty appears youthful and reenergized even as he rails about his products' distribution to the public. Gone was the salted beard that covered his chin for the past couple of years. But his face was gaunt under a haystack of thin blond hair - in a crowd he could be mistaken for Edgar Winter.

Fans hoping for a jukebox of hits came to the wrong rally, though. The just over two-hour concert was a showcase for The Last DJ with a few older band favorites and an unlikely selection of singles.

Opening with the new album's title track about the hero of his art-over-commerce struggle, Petty devoted nearly a third of the 21-song set to the character's story. When A Kid Goes Bad is a new entry into his hard-hitting catalog of nasal roadhouse rockers that strikes with the authority of early hit Refugee.

Have Love Will Travel pays homage to the influence Petty has taken from Bob Dylan. A simple rhyme scheme and guitarist Mike Campbell's hypnotizing chord loop bears the blueprint of a song like Visions of Johanna.

The standout new song is Joe. Doing for record moguls what the Al Pacino film The Devil's Advocate did for lawyers, the singer relishes the sweet bluesy underbelly of a record label CEO sneering, "You get to be famous, I get to be rich."

The raw nerves of The Last DJ extended into the rest of the set and transformed some previous works. The decade-old King's Highway was stripped to a rhythm guitar for a bayou blues-rock reorchestration. Benmont Tench's organ on Chuck Berry's Carol led into a 15-minute electric howl around the normally lightweight Mary Jane's Last Dance.

Petty's "damn the moneymakers" argument falls a little flat when you ponder just how wealthy he's become as a recording artist. There was a constant reminder of that glitch whenever a radio favorite was offered and was felt even more when classics were omitted.

Petty danced and posed between verses of I Won't Back Down and stepped-aside so Scott Thurston could blow harmonica on You Don't Know How It Feels. But without American Girl, Breakdown or Here Comes My Girl, the show didn't feel complete. Refugee and the lesser-known Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid) were left to represent Petty and Co.'s monumental first three albums.

It makes one wonder why the group didn't celebrate its own struggle, the same one fictionalized for The Last DJ. Or maybe the hypocrisy of stardom at the altar of the CEOs Petty now blasts shamed him into playing down career highlights.

If so, it's a negative side effect to this well-intentioned scrap.