Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers never disappoint
By Jay N. Miller
The Patriot Ledger - August 20, 2010
Have Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ever given a bad show? Not to these ears, and last night's 105-minute blast at the Comcast Center was proof again that the sextet just might be the most reliable rock band out there. Petty and the boys did a yeoman-like selection of their past hits and fan favorites, but also mixed in four new songs from his newest album, "Mojo," and gave many of their old chestnuts such new twists they were transformed.
In keeping with the flavor of "Mojo" and its music, Petty and crew seemed to be delving into a psychedelic blues mode, and an early romp through the early Fleetwood Mac classic "Oh Well" was just the first indication. That song had Petty hamming it up with his vocal, while guitarist Mike Campbell turned the old Peter Green vehicle into a note-shredding festival, with healthy use of phase-shifter, wah-wah and other effects. Petty and the Heartbreakers - Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist/keyboardist /harmonica player Scott Thurston - performed with their trademark cohesion all night, with nary a note out of place despite some obvious jamming segments. Most of them have been playing together since 1976 or so, with Blair departing in '82, but returning in 2002 when Howie Epstein's drug problems led to his leaving the band. Ferrone joined in 1994, when original drummer Stan Lynch was fired, and Thurston came on board at about the same time.
The Petty set opened with "Listen to Her Heart," the two guitars of Campbell and Petty melding for some delightful textures over the twin keyboards of Tench and Thurston. Petty looked like a cross between contemporary Bob Dylan and some 1960s Beatles-era character, dressed in black sportcoat, black shirt, black pants, black hat, and a bright red scarf.
The first indication that Thursday's music would be a bit different came on the second tune, "You Don't Know How It Feels," which got a nice laidback reading, as Petty dragged the tempo with his vocals, and Campbell and Tench added extended solos, also at a languid pace that gave the song a woozy feeling.
The arena became a vibrant mass singalong with "I Won't Back Down," the first of many times the vocalist seemed unnecessary amid the 20,000 avid fans. Could there be a better groove, or most infectious framework for a singalong than "Freefallin'?" Right after that wonderful communal moment, the boys unveiled that crackling cover of the old Fleetwood Mac tune.
Petty was once again deliberately dragging the tempo with his vocals on "Last Dance with Mary Jane," enhancing its illusory nature, and Campbell's final sizzling guitar solo served to yank the audience back to 2010. Thursday night also proved that 1991's "The King's Highway," from the overlooked "Into the Great Wide Open" album, is a neglected gem, a finely textured guitar showcase for Petty and Campbell that rides an irresistible momentum.
Campbell's opening guitar lines for "Breakdown" were positively mesmerizing, gritty yet ethereal all at once, and when the band slowed down the middle section of the song, it veered into an improvisational blues, with Campbell, Tench, and Thurston providing some new sparks. It was crafty pacing to unveil the four new tunes after that triumph, with the crowd thoroughly charmed already.
The frenetically paced "Jefferson Jericho Blues" rode a kind of weirdly doubling-back keyboard cycle, while "Good Enough" was the type of psychedelic blues you might expect on The Beatles' "Revolver" album. "Running Man's Bible" jogged along on a persistent midtempo beat, as Petty's vocal seemed to add Dylanesque commentary. The final new tune was the surreal "I Should've Known Him," with its pounding beat and an elastic bass figure from Blair that, once more, seemed to be curling back into itself in a sonic haze, until Campbell cleared the debris with another brain-curdling guitar solo.
It was back to the favorites after that, starting with a "Learning to Fly" that began with just Petty's acoustic guitar, grew bolder with an exquisite Tench keyboard line, and peaked when the crowd took over the chorus as Petty smiled and stepped away from the microphone. "Refugee" was a powerful conclusion to the regular set, as finely crafted, passionately delivered, and inspirational as it was 30 years ago when Petty wrote it.
The three-song encore gave Campbell more room to shine with a fiery "Running Down a Dream," and then saw Tench, on piano, take the spotlight for a barrelhouse run through Chuck Berry's old "Carol." And was anyone surprised that the grand finale was "American Girl?" Of course not, but neither was anyone disappointed by the furiously rocking standard that Petty and his band knocked out of the park -- as usual.
My Morning Jacket got to play a generous 70-minute opening set, and the Kentucky quintet's version of classic heartland rock includes some nifty curveballs. MMJ tends to create sonic landscapes, where the guitar textures may erupt in squalling wails at any moment, and Jim James' lead vocals can range from hymn-like crooning to wild yelps and anguished cries.
"Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Part 2" was a particularly beguiling bit of rock/performance art, as James played some sort of laptop-like sound synthesizer, while the rhythm section and keyboards created a spacey techno beat - all of which provided counterpoint to his cathartic yowls. The hypnotic polyrhythms behind "Wordless Chorus" also made that song's vocals and guitar leads seem to burst inside your skull. MMJ aims for big effects and unique approaches, and they succeed more often than not, making for some truly memorable moments.