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Petty in control at the Bowl
By Ben Wener
The Orange County Register - Friday, June 27, 2008

The Heartbreakers may be the most commanding 'heritage' rock band out there.
Desert Jeff loves the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers greatest-hits show. You know the one: Petty and his gang come out, blast expertly through a half-dozen classics, toss in a few new ones because there's product to promote, then get right back to the smashes, each one more terrific than the last.

"I could see that show 15 times and not get bored," he tells me after Steve Winwood's jammed-out and funked-up 75 minutes, as we start wondering what we're doing back here at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night, spending another evening with the Heartbreakers so soon after the last.

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Wasn't there some talk - sometimes from Petty himself - about their superb 2006 tour being the last for a while? Didn't that Stevie Nicks-studded show underneath this shell in the hills play like some sort of farewell? Why, it begs to be asked, are the Heartbreakers back on another big tour (it also stops Aug. 22 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater) just two years later, when the only thing most of this bunch has done lately is return to roots with the resurrection and fulfillment of Mudcrutch, their first band?

Why? Because they can, that's why.

Because rock 'n' roll will never die, and rock 'n' roll never forgets - and when Bo Diddley is dead and the Who are down to two and the Stones strut across a thread that could snap at any moment, then there are only so many practitioners of the Real Thing left. And those practitioners know they have an obligation to keep the flame alive.

Sticking to the 2006 playbook, the group bookended either side of its set with a half-dozen staples. Yank "You Wreck Me" from the encore to pole position, then toss in "Even the Losers" - and you've got the same start as two years ago, filled out by "Listen to Her Heart," its jangle glistening and golden, plus robust takes on "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin' " and that fiery party at the end of sanity, "Mary Jane's Last Dance."

At the other end of the evening: "You Don't Know How It Feels," delicately sneering; the quieter, gentler arrangement of "Learning to Fly"; "Don't Come Around Here No More," with guitarist Mike Campbell quoting "Angel of the Morning"; a roaring "Refugee; and an encore that reminded you haven't lived until you've spelled and chanted "Gloria" as a member of an 18,000-strong glee club.

What fell between, however, was both unexpected and thoroughly rewarding, leaving a fan with that same feeling you get when you've caught the Stones dusting off "Sister Morphine."

On one hand, there was the scarcely touched - the bluesy, tempo-switching "Sweet William" and the lonely memory of "A Face in the Crowd," its lovely Benmont Tench piano solo draped in cascading arpeggios and Bill Evans moodiness. On the other, there was the delightful (the might-as-well cheeriness of the Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line") and the predictable but rousing, as when Winwood re-emerged for Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" (one of the most beautiful songs in the English language) and his first hit with the Spencer Davis Group, the irrepressible "Gimme Some Lovin.' "

If I'm honest with myself, that last one could have done with more pep - it felt geriatric in its bubbling verses, though whenever it reached that "so glad we made it" rise, man did it kick. Still, it was smartly slotted midset; no way was it smokin' enough for an encore.

And yet everything else about this two-hour performance was so masterful - smooth like well-aged Scotch - that you have to wonder: Of all the so-called heritage acts still touring every other summer or so, who can rival these guys at this point? Not Dylan - not when so many can't understand him. Not McCartney - still too much sentimentality. Not ZZ Top, not the Allman Brothers Band, not whatever splinters of the Dead might turn up these days. Maybe the Stones or the Who on a really good night? Or Springsteen and the E Street Band when they stick to classics? Or Elvis Costello when he remembers how to?

No one else springs to mind. No one else is quite as commanding yet virtually flash-free. Only at the very end, when Campbell's fingering got chunky trying to hammer out the crazy triplets that close out "American Girl," could anyone detect flubs. The Heartbreakers remain rock 'n' rollers par excellence, in such complete control of every dynamic shift, every subtle nuance, that they can call up a European EP cut like "Sweet William" and storm through it as if it's been in their repertoire for decades.

Only the most perfectly seasoned groups have such feel. This one now manages the rarest of feats among bands at such an advanced stage: It sounds even better this time than the time before ... which was better than the time before that ... which was better than the time before that.

And so it goes. And so may it still, till they can go no more.