Defiant Petty turns simple into striking
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune - December 13, 2002
Tom Petty--perhaps the skinniest and surely the blondest man in rock--sees the world in simple, black-and-white terms. He is the antithesis of the "complex kid" who eludes him in "Shadow of a Doubt," which he performed Wednesday at the United Center.
Petty and his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, demonstrated an immunity to trends, both musical and cultural. They are content to play '60s folk-rock, laden with Byrds and Beatles references and dosed with touches of garage mania and psychedelia. Petty remains a hold-out against corporate sponsorship, as he reminded the audience, and his latest album, "The Last DJ," is an attack on the multinationals that control the music and radio industries. Ironically, the concert was co-promoted by no less than two local radio stations. Snippets from his songs found him filling the boots of the defiant loner: "You don't know how it feels to be me"; "I won't back down"; "There'll be more like me who won't give in." He exudes a kind of outlaw integrity, even as he equates "Mr. Businessman" with Pontius Pilate in "Can't Stop the Sun," laments how "we celebrate mediocrity" in the title song from his new album, and complains that the "main energy in America is greed."
If Petty sees any ambiguity in these positions--he is, after all, a wealthy man thanks in part to the business practices of his Time-Warner-AOL-owned label--he does not betray them. He may be cranky, but his music isn't particularly self-righteous or preachy. It rings with optimistic chords and rolls out with blue-collar consistency. The two irreplaceable Heartbreakers--guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench--replicate their solos and concise fills note for note, the lyricism of these statements as crucial to the success of the songs as Petty's voice.
The music has a California breeziness, but it is steeped in the simplicity of Southern blues, as filtered through the Chess Records stable of artists: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf. Petty's Florida drawl gives his singing an unhurried, conversational feel, but he can ratchet up the intensity on the choruses, a formula that has served him well on resilient songs such as "Free Fallin'" and "A Woman in Love (It's Not Me)." On "Have Love Will Travel," he dropped into a sing-speak passage straight out of an old Ink Spots or Elvis Presley song, coming as close as he's ever been in his 27 years of recording to delivering a manifesto: "How about a cheer for all those bad girls, and all the boys that play that rock 'n' roll, they love it like you love Jesus, it does the same thing to their souls."
Petty, fresh off a tribute concert in London for his late Traveling Wilburys bandmate George Harrison, pulled out a 12-string guitar for a rarely performed Wilburys track, "Handle With Care." Campbell's slide solo acknowledged Harrison's, while Scott Thurston had his bandmates smiling with high harmonies that nodded to another Wilbury, the late Roy Orbison. It was Petty doing what he does best: Drawing on the music and ideals of the past with fresh enthusiasm, and emerging rejuvenated.
The opener, Jackson Browne, is a revered songwriter who has not managed the same trick. Though Browne's classics, such as "Fountain of Sorrow" and "Running on Empty," have aged well, his slick California pop-rock has not. His seven-piece band played like well-rehearsed pros, and Browne delivered his songs with wooden precision; both new and old blended into a midtempo mulch. It was by-the-numbers arena rock for a singer whose best songs aren't built to be battered.