The Petty Archives

30 Years in the Making, a Show Still Lean and Hungry
By Nate Chinen
The New York Times - June 22, 2006

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first album 30 years ago, they could hardly have known that they would become one of the biggest touring acts in rock 'n' roll. They probably had no premonition of playing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, as they did on Tuesday night, or providing theme music for the broadcast of the N.B.A. Finals, which wrapped up the same evening. Those would have seemed like grandiose benchmarks for a band so scrappy and garage-like, so devoted to grease and grit.

But then again, the band's hunger was clear from the start. It's there in the bright swagger of "American Girl," the song that closed that first album (and, as an encore, Tuesday's concert). "She couldn't help thinking that there was a little more to life somewhere else," Mr. Petty sang on that track, with plainspoken insistence. Only a couple of years earlier he had left Gainesville, Fla., for Los Angeles, band mates in tow.

Mr. Petty has managed to maintain that image of restlessness and independence, sometimes at the cost of sounding in touch with the modern world. His stage manner has bloated a bit — at the Garden he lifted his arms in gladiatorial triumph after nearly every song — but it didn't come across as excess. Nor did a preponderance of songs from his greatest hits compilation, which has sold more than 10 million copies.

This was largely because of the hits themselves, with their calmly searching lyrics and sturdy, effortless melodies. (It felt as if the whole arena sang along to "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin,' " which were sequenced in a satisfying one-two punch.) But the show's impact also had a lot to do with the Heartbreakers' refusal to let those songs gain an ounce of weight, in either pretense or flab.

The guitarist Mike Campbell brought a raucous lift to the compact breaks that seemed built into every song. Benmont Tench and Ron Blair, also charter Heartbreakers, played keyboards and bass respectively; Steve Ferrone played drums. Scott Thurston managed harmonica and rhythm guitar, along with background vocals; on the Traveling Wilburys song "Handle With Care" he capably tackled the part originally filled by Roy Orbison (and, in a recent appropriation, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie).

Among the concert's few covers was Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," which featured Mr. Petty strutting the stage, Jaggeresque, with a pair of maracas. This prefaced an appearance by the Fleetwood Mac survivor Stevie Nicks, who joined Mr. Petty on half a dozen songs, including their duet "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." She took the lead vocal on the early Heartbreakers hit "I Need to Know," with strident enthusiasm.

Mr. Petty offered only one song from "Highway Companion," his album scheduled for release next month. Yet the song, a roadhouse shuffle called "Saving Grace," already sounded like a classic. "It's hard to say who you are these days," Mr. Petty sang. "But you run on anyway, don't you, baby?"

Correction: June 26, 2006
A music review on Thursday about Tom Petty at Madison Square Garden misstated the number of songs from his coming album that were played. It was two, not one. In addition to "Saving Grace," he performed "Square One."