Tom Petty and Steve Miller: boomers with something to prove
By Jonathan Zwickel
The Seattle Times - Thursday, June 10, 2010
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Steve Miller Band both have albums coming out next week. Petty plays the Gorge this weekend, Miller plays Chateau Ste. Michelle July 14.
A sincere and hearty thanks to the baby boomers for creating some of the best pop music of the modern era. As they march toward seniority, however, a quandary arises: Why do older artists so rarely make relevant music?
Let's consider boomer rockers Tom Petty, 59, and Steve Miller, 66. Both release albums next week (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Mojo," Steve Miller Band's "Bingo!") and play the Seattle area soon (Petty with two shows at the Gorge this weekend, Miller on July 14 at Chateau Ste. Michelle).
Based on their albums — both nods to their early years — it's apparent Petty has outlasted Miller.
The best tracks on "Mojo" hearken back to Petty's early '70s, pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch. A loose, louche swagger dominates the album, jammier and less overtly pop than previous Petty.
"First Flash of Freedom" takes flight via longtime Petty foil Mike Campbell's meandering guitar, reminiscent of Jerry Garcia; the song's about the golden potential of the unexplored, a theme similar to the slow-burning "The Trip to Pirate's Cove."
"Don't Pull Me Over" is a reggae-inflected pro-marijuana protest groove. Lead single "I Should Have Known It" takes a standard blues guitar riff and jacks it up, Led Zeppelin-style, into radio-ready rock.
The album's not without its missteps. At 15 tracks, it's too long, and its underlying blues sensibility is occasionally stale, though Petty's way with a hook brightens even the most sluggish numbers. Sharp songwriting gives slow-simmering blues "US 41" and "Let Yourself Go" raw, humid heat.
Thematically, musically, Petty plays to kids and kids-at-heart. His choice of venue is another indicator of his prospective audience: Two nights at the Gorge = three-day car-campout suited only to die-hards and kids.
And here's Steve Miller Band playing Seattle's most VIP-oriented, office-casual venue. There are no kids at Ste. Michelle save toddlers towed in by moneyed parents.
On stage and on "Bingo!," Miller now plays for old folks. The album has 10 tracks of blues classics previously recorded dozens, if not hundreds, of times, by the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Otis Redding, Earl King — dudes far bluesier than Miller.
"Bingo!" is 17 years in coming; 17 years since 1993's "Wide River," Steve Miller Band's last album, which featured its last Top 40 hit (the title track, their tenth Top 40 single). After 17 years, Miller should have something original to impart. Instead he's playing other people's songs.
These songs, he's explained to reporters, were his initial introduction to the guitar way back when. He loves 'em. But they're dreadfully dated, un-updated. Cliché.
Miller's playing is strong, albeit aided in places by shredmeister Joe Satriani. But as recorded here, the songs — "You Got Me Dizzy," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," "Rock Me Baby," which is not "Rock 'N Me," the 1976 Steve Miller Band hit you know by heart — are utterly forgettable.
It's fine for Miller to drop filler like this into his live shows, which are typically unabashedly fun, cross-generational summertime celebrations.
But to offer an album of rehashed standards as your latest opus is the embarrassing sound of a 66-year-old man with nothing new to say who insists on speaking up anyway.
Petty and Miller have sold some 50 million records between them. They're beloved American musicians, and for good reason. Almost 40 years after their first hits, Petty makes a valid case for America's continued fascination with the boomers' legacy. Miller should've kept quiet and let that legacy speak for itself.