The Petty Archives

Petty still breaking some hearts
By Richard Cromelin
The Los Angeles Times - August 16, 2005

Is this the world's best bar band? An arena-rock war horse? Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers flashed a bit of both identities Sunday at their Verizon Wireless Amphitheater concert, but mainly they came across as a classic-rock band that's stayed on this side of the nostalgia frontier. The set included hardly anything less than 10 years old, but the band scored its points by playing with immediacy and freshness rather than merely triggering fond memories.

That's the only way it could work for Petty, an artist who has fostered a fiercely loyal following not just with enduring hooks and lyrics but also with the genuineness and conviction behind them. In exchange for one of the lowest-priced tickets on the big-name summer-tour market, he and his band deliver a direct, uncluttered, bluster-free show.

Well, there was a little bluster on Sunday, mainly in Benmont Tench's crazed piano showcase and in some of Mike Campbell's guitar solos. That's the Heartbreakers' arena-rock side, but it never got excessive.

After all, arena rock wasn't a dirty word when Petty and his band came out of Florida nearly 30 years ago to revitalize the moribund mainstream-rock world with their urgent and idealistic mix of folky and heavy, and after all this time they're able to summon the urgency.

The years have also brought an ever-increasing ease and comfort in their stage manner, which stems from their leader's eccentric mix of down-to-earth and slightly flamboyant. Petty and the band (rounded out by drummer Steve Ferrone, bassist Ron Blair and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston) have a clear sense of their nature and see no need to strain for Springsteen-like grandeur.

Instead, Petty prowls the stage, does an occasional dance step, but he knows that the heart of his performance is in the songs themselves, and that's where the focus was Sunday. From the ringing, folk-rock flavored numbers such as the opening "Listen to Her Heart" to the heavyriff pile-drivers, including "Breakdown" and "Refugee," the band was clean and elegant without losing spontaneity and flavor.

There was plenty of range. "Free Falling" added a psychedelic wooziness to the mix, "Don't Come Around Here No More" attained a memorable stateliness, and Petty finger-picked the folk-country-flavored "Angel Dream (No. 2)," which he introduced as his favorite of his own compositions.

And the bar band? That came in songs such as the Animals' "I'm Cryin'," propelled by playful showing-off of the band's tight precision, and in an encore version of Them's "Gloria."

It added up to an enduring statement of underdog determination and purity of heart, wrapped up in an undiminished joy in the pleasures and potential of fundamental rock 'n' roll.

Petty's tour returns to Southern California on Sunday for a Hyundai Pavilion show with the Black Crowes on the bill. At Verizon, Petty had Jackson Browne as his opening act, giving fans a double dose of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame music. Browne isn't such a compelling stage figure, but he and his band earned a strong response with such landmarks as "The Pretender" and "Running on Empty."