Tom Petty delivers the goods at the Greek -- what else would an understated rock icon do?
By Joel Selvin
The San Francisco Chronicle - August 29, 2005
He hasn't put out a new record in years, but Tom Petty is rock aristocracy. He doesn't get the big-time media play of Springsteen or Dylan, but in front of his audience, no rock musician is more convincing or powerful than Petty.
"We got the genuine all-American rock 'n' roll show," he promised the audience Friday at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre, the first of two sold-out shows last weekend. And so he did.
For two hours, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played old favorites and rolled out some forgotten nuggets from the back catalog, all glistening numbers that come from the heart and soul of 1965, when groups like the Byrds, the Zombies, the Rolling Stones -- not to mention Bob Dylan -- were inventing an art form Petty perfected. It was no surprise to hear Petty and company dust off an old Animals album track, "I'm Crying," and rock the place with it.
Wearing a forest green velvet jacket and faded jeans, a colored scarf tied around his neck, Petty basked in the overwhelming ovation that followed his opening number and then charged into "Around and Around," a Chuck Berry song the Stones used to do. Pianist Benmont Tench skillfully burnished the edges. Behind the band, a huge wall of neon lights, geometric shapes and giant video projections flashed and sparkled.
For all the rock star trappings, Petty somehow remains a real guy, authentic and enthusiastic. He maintains an unerring human perspective. He recalled to the crowd how his first single lay dormant for four months after its release until it was picked up by the legendary San Francisco radio station KSAN. "It all really began right here," he said, introducing "Breakdown," one of several selections back in the book after many years.
He gets his songs across with an arched eyebrow, a flicker of a grin and ringing choruses that gleamed in the exquisite audio production. Guitarist Mike Campbell, "co-captain," Petty said, colored the sound with tightly woven rhythm figures. Utility man Scott Thurston, once a sideman, now an official Heartbreaker, gave Petty some strong harmonies and switched off between guitar, harmonica and keyboards.
Petty played the sweet "It'll All Work Out," an obscure track off the 1987 album, "Let Me Up (I've Had Enough)," that even he admitted he'd forgotten about until director Cameron Crowe tabbed him to reprise the song for his latest feature, "Elizabethtown." He also introduced an acoustic- flavored song, "Melinda," that has only been released on a live DVD by saying, "We're rather fond of it and we think you'll like it, too."
The audience got into the act, singing along without prompting. Petty, whose records have become staples on classic rock radio, attracted an across- the-board age range that showered him with adulation. Ever the man of the people, he kept ticket prices at a relatively modest $60 top, did two smaller shows for independent promoters Another Planet rather than working a Clear Channel shed and brought along a substantial supporting act -- not just some anonymous cannon fodder -- the reunited Black Crowes, who put on a 90-minute performance that was ancient history at the first chords of Petty's show.
It was also touching to have Petty invoke the late George Harrison and Roy Orbison of the Traveling Wilburys by singing the group's first hit, "Handle With Care," as he had on the record, with Thurston covering Orbison's vocal part and Campbell playing Harrison's slide guitar break. The band brought the show to critical mass with a hard-driving "Don't Come Around Here No More," Campbell lighting up the rhythm on funky sitar-guitar, and a roaring "Refugee." The encore of "Gloria" brought back a wispy memory from an epic 1979 Winterland performance that he closed with the same number.
Since his Bay Area debut 29 years ago, when he and the band played Keystone Palo Alto shortly after the release of their first album, Petty has never put on a bad show in town. He played a historic series of shows in 1997 at the Fillmore -- nobody who was there will ever forget. But something in his nonchalance, his unprepossessing character, his becoming modesty, has left him oddly underrated. Make no mistake, however, Petty is truly one of rock's great princes.