Petty In Top Form
By Rick Overwater
CANOE - August 12, 2008

Saddledome, Calgary | August 11, 2008 | ★★★★☆

CALGARY - Hitting the stage with a full beard and the same shoulder length haircut he's had since... he was born perhaps, Tom Petty wasted little time getting down to the hits at the Saddledome last night, playing several of them right off the bat including Free Fallin' and Listen to Her Heart.

By the third, I Won't Back Down, the crowd could see they were getting the Tom Petty show they wanted, the Tom Petty of right now, the Tom Petty of five years back, the Tom Petty of the 80s.

Timelessness has been the calling card of Petty since he and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut in 1978.

Somehow they have always straddled a number of lines.

They came to fame celebrating the jangle of bands like the Byrds and demonstrating the swagger of the Rolling Stones, but avoided being a derivative rehash or getting mired in a dated sound that could hold them back. They exuded the scrappy energy of garage rock but played with a tight, simple command of both their instruments and songwriting that indicated serious skill.

In short, they managed to stay consistently popular without trend-hopping and at the same time maintain some street cred. Not an easy feat.

With numerous multi-platinum albums behind them and their latest, Highway Companion, peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, it was obvious watching a crowd that spanned multiple generations leap to its feet that Tom Petty will be filling stadiums for quite some time.

Part of that's due to his backing band, the Heartbreakers.

Though he has occasionally emerged as a lone gun, particularly in 1989 when his smash album Full Moon Fever saw him and the Heartbreakers trading a few public shots over their official exclusion (slightly mystifying, as many members did contribute to the record) the Heartbreakers have always had a lot to do with Petty's sound.

At the core they are a basic straight-ahead rock and roll band. But as musical eras come and go, their ability to incorporate psychedelia, southern rock and even elements of New Wave has made them a flexible al l-purpose machine that can back Petty through anything.

Last night they were in excellent form, with most of the longtime members like guitarist Mike Campbell present and accounted for.

They played like they were recording Petty's hits for the first time.

The crowd it ate it up, but it didn't hurt they were good and warmed up for Petty's show by the time he came on. Undoubtedly he can remember back to the days when he was a typical opening act, playing songs no one knew for an audience that didn't care -- assuming they'd even showed up by then -- but that was not a problem for opening act Steve Winwood.

Besides racking up plenty of album sales as a solo artist, Winwood also has a lot of hits under his belt in bands like the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith.

When you consider the fact that Winwood has been a pro since his days in the Spencer Davis Group, playing on hits like Gimme Some Lovin' while he was still a teenager, it seems logical that the 60-year old Winwood would recast himself back in the role of regular R&B-influenced rocker.

It's step mirrored by the recent release of Nine Lives which sees Winwood shrewdly returning to a more 60s-feeling sound, jazzed up with a few Latin tinges, and playing guitar and Hammond B-3 organ.

A less savvy player might have taken another shot at the slick success of more synth-driven 80s albums, like Back in the Highlife and Roll With It, but Winwood is smart enough to know that ship has sailed.

He kept things sounding organic, bringing in a conga player and jazz drummer to keep form with the new record, and otherwise stuck to the sounds that made him famous.

Whether playing the soaring keyboard parts of Gimme Some Lovin' or getting behind a stratocaster for the rambling guitar solos of Dear Mr. Fantasy, Winwood was clearly a concert headliner playing the part of opening act.

It was the icing on a cake that would still have been tasty without him.