LEHIGH VALLEY MUSIC: Tom Petty still a heartbreaker
The Morning Call - August 2, 2010
It was evident from the time Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers took the stage Sunday at Philadelphia's Wachovia Arena to the familiar chiming guitar and soaring organ of "Listen to Her Heart" that time has changed him.
Now 20 albums and nearly 35 years into his career, the 59-year-old Petty is no longer the cynical songster who helped carry rock and roll through punk in the late 1970s, nor the hitmaker of the 1980s.
But his songs have changed with him, and so has his audience: The near sellout crowd for the second night of a two-night stand was generally older.
And as with Dylan and Springsteen, Petty's songs now carry different meanings for his fans than when they first heard them, but they resonate just as loudly.
So while "Won't Back Down" was more mournful than confrontational -- guitarist Mike Campbell played a nice slide -- the crowd still used its chorus as a release value, singing along heartily and cheering at the end. They hear more wistfulness in "Free Fallin'," but connect to it – singing along with the gentle beginning and leaping to their feet to loudly shout the chorus.
"Breakdown" carries more ache than ever, but his audience understands even more, happily singing when Petty turns it into a call-and-response, and spontaneously starting to clap along as if it's a Southern gospel service.
And when Petty brought out a deep album cut, "King's Highway" from 1991's "Into the Great Wide Open," it was a song that was lovely and wistful, made even more so by Campbell's melancholy guitar and keyboardist Benmont Tench's piano.
Some songs didn't change. "You Don't Know How It Feels" had the thumping drum and echo-y guitar solo, and gave the crowd the chance to take it's refrain "let's roll another joint" literally.
Unfortunately, Petty also has reached the point in his career where any new songs that don't reach the level of his beloved hits won't be accepted as heartily. That was true of the four he sang from his new disc "Mojo" during the concert's midsection.
"Jefferson Jerico Blues" has enough blues momentum and "I Should Have Known It" is different enough from most Petty songs to be intriguing. But they, along with "The First Flash of Freedom" and "Running Man's Bible" were more tolerated than embraced.
Luckily, Petty has enough hits to let him finish strong. "Learning to Fly" was even more gentle than the original, starting with him alone in a spotlight on acoustic guitar before the band kicked in, as the crowd began singing again.
"Don't Come Around Here No More" also was more mournful than harsh, though the audience emphatically sang the chorus' "Stop!' and Campbell finished with a fast, thrashing solo.
Only "Refugee," which closed the main set, seemed diminished. The crowd cheered its first notes, and Campbell later played a ripping solo. But it carried far less of the menace it requires.
The encore was flat-out rock: "Runnin' Down a Dream" gave Campbell space to do a longer, elaborate solo. Even Petty exclaimed "Oh, baby!" after the song. A cover of Chuck Berry's "Carol" was a rollicking good time.
And then Petty asked "Are you ready?" And the band kicked in with the closing "American Girl."
And his older audience was connected enough to break into dance.
Of course, with as many hits as Petty has, there's bound to be disappointment in what's not played.
In a 105-minute, 19-song set that found room for a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," I would have liked to hear "Change of Heart" and desperately missed "The Waiting." But I found it absolute sacrilege that he skipped "Don't Do Me Like That."
But such are the changes in life. And when Petty closed by saying "Let's get together again sometime," it was like saying goodbye after spending an evening with someone important in your life, and hoping you will.