The Petty Archives

Petty and Co. mine their past, hint at future
By Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune - April 15, 2003

Professor Tom Petty staged a rock 'n' roll history class Sunday as he and his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, opened a five-night stand at the Vic Theatre.

Petty dipped into his back catalogue and gave a glimpse of his future with at least one newly written tune, but he devoted much of the performance to his influences, shading particularly hard toward the Chicago blues. With tickets at $50.50--well below the price commanded by Petty's peers for less-cozy arena and stadium shows--the singer has turned his sold-out residency into an event that is not only musically bold but financially reasonable. A line of ticketholders snaked south on Sheffield Avenue outside the Vic on Sunday five hours before show time. Once inside, they got more than 30 songs spread over 2 1/2 hours, including a number of tunes Petty has rarely performed in his tours.

Petty comes to Chicago packing a great band in top form. In the late '90s, the Heartbreakers nearly fractured with bassist Howie Epstein in the throes of a drug addiction that eventually killed him. But a reunion with original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair for last year's arena tour has solidified the back line, anchored by drummer Steve Ferrone. Multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, keyboard guru Benmont Tench and man-of-many-guitars Mike Campbell give Petty a versatility that few mainstream bands possess, a combination of sensitivity and sockĀ  that was exploited fully on opening night, in electric and acoustic sets.

Unlike Petty's recent arena tour, which played the United Center on Dec. 11, this run isn't about promoting a particular album. The focus last time was on "The Last DJ," an ambitious album about the collision between innocence and greed, rock 'n' roll and corporate America, a boy named Johnny and a CEO named Joe. This time, the emphasis was on career-spanning kicks, with obscurities exhumed, familiar tunes expanded or stretched, and covers aplenty.

Petty hopped aboard Muddy Waters' "Baby Please Don't Go" and rode that train out of the station at the concert's outset, with Thurston on harmonica. The opening electric set shuffled classic Petty (a spiraling guitar workout on "Mary Jane's Last Dance," "Strangered in the Night," an extended call-and-response on "You Don't Know How it Feels"), rarely performed Petty (a melancholy "Crawling Back to You" from the underappreciated "Wildflowers" album), a nod to his old Traveling Wilburys chums ("Handle with Care," with Thurston gamely channeling the otherworldly tenor vocals of the late Roy Orbison) and a batch of covers that included J.J. Cale, the mid-'60s Rolling Stones blues "Down Home Girl," and the Animals' "I'm Crying," with Tench ramping up Alan Price's wicked Farfisa organ riff.

The second set focused on quieter but no less intense acoustic material, with Campbell on electric mandolin. Petty chose well from his "She's the One" soundtrack, culling the lovely "Walls" and the fragile hymn "Angel Dream (No. 2)," and sprinkled in more blues, Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman" (via Elvis Presley's hip-twitching rockabilly version) and Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." His own road ballad "Blue Sunday" was followed by an even more contemplative as-yet-unreleased original, "Melinda," with Tench's cascading piano shading it in melancholy.

Just when things couldn't have gotten any quieter, Petty, Campbell and Thurston strapped on the electric guitars for a pair of epic jams that evoked the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, particularly during the coda to "Lost Children."

It capped what was easily Petty's most adventurous set of music on a Chicago stage in more than a decade. If some of the crowd was restless for more familiar material, Petty delivered during the encore, following Chuck Berry's "Carol" with his own house-rocking reliables "You Wreck Me" and "Runnin' Down a Dream." But this night, and most likely this week, of Petty music isn't about the hits. It's about Petty and the Heartbreakers taking their time, digging deep and mining their pasts as musical appreciators for inspiration. It's a rare opportunity to see Petty not just as a star, which he is, but as a musician and a fan. No doubt, next time through town Petty will be playing the big arenas once again, and working through his crowd-pleasers. But this week, his roots are showing, and it's a fascinating glimpse into the mind, soul and inspiration of one of the rock 'n' roll greats.