Tom Petty occupies a strange place in our collective psyche. Because of his notable collaborations with respected rock elders like Bob Dylan, George Harrison and the late Del Shannon, we tend to view him as a rookie instead of the 20-year veteran that he is. When he and the Heartbreakers began recording in the mid-Seventies, his sound seemed like a throwback to the British invasion, especially in light of the bloated excess it was forced to compete with in the pop marketplace. Although nobody bandied about the term "classic rock" back then, it seems like a category tailor-made for Petty. He has staunchly avoided ever-changing musical trends, the only exception being when he let Eurythmic Dave Stewart mar his Southern Accents album with an obviously trendy "sound of the month" production approach.

If Petty still seems like a throwback to a simpler time, it's because he approaches the task of making music in the same manner that his idols did. It's doubtful anybody was even wearing a digital watch in the studio when Petty's latest "all analog" album Wildflowers was cut. But nowhere is his respect for the old way of doing things more evident than on the concert stage.

There's no bank of computers underneath the stage to reproduce what's on his recordings. For the sound of a second keyboard, Petty did things the old-fashioned way and actually added another keyboard player, in this case, Scott Thurston, who also doubled on harp and acoustic guitar as well as providing an additional harmony voice. Petty, Michael Campbell and Howie Epstein could get one of those newfangled wireless contraptions for their guitars, but no, they insist on using those long, clunky cables because it's an integral part of how they weave and bob around onstage.

For two decades, Petty's averaged at least one hit per album, allowing him to open his show with a total of seven bona fide hits without even putting a dent on his supply of Top 40 nuggets. After opening with the swaggering "Love Is a Long Road," he slipped into "You Don't Know How It Feels." That tune, along with "Free Falling," turned the large outdoor venue into a campfire sing-along without much prompting, especially (predictably?) that line about "let's roll another joint." Petty utilized the hoariest arena-rock move--clapping his hands over his head like a trained seal so you'll do it--to odd effect. Instead of using this cheap tactic to build up a lame song to a fiery climax, Petty chose to do this when songs were winding down, producing a strange calming effect.

And just when it seemed as if those hits would never stop coming, the band pulled out the requisite built-in lulls necessary to break down and build up momentum during two-hour rock shows. Though some impatient fans took this opportunity to grab some nachos with cheese and wait for "Refugee," these interludes provided the night with the biggest musical surprises. Mike Campbell has always been a criminally underrated guitarist, mainly because what he does seems so tastefully simple. This night he demonstrated a heretofore unexploited talent as King of the Wild Surf Guitar. Strapping on a pink Fender Jazzmaster, he whipped through an exhilarating "Diamond Head," working in the more familiar "James Bond Theme" and a snippet of "Breakdown." Petty also showed he was no slouch in the string-pulling department on an extended "Mary Jane's Last Dance."

"This is a story song," Petty drawled, "about a place where the air is brown and the women are pretty. And if you're there at the right time, you can have a drink with any rebel." Thus began "Into the Great Wide Open" as the rear curtain slowly descended until it resembled two large, sagging breasts. If this were a Stones show, those curtains would've almost certainly had nipples. Other incidental surprises included an owl flying around the ceiling of the Pavilion for most of "Time to Move On." At one point, the wayward bird was even awarded a spotlight! Petty performed a song most of the audience was unfamiliar with. An early verse went "I fell in love with a girl who drank coffee," and each successive verse, his girl accrued a harsher drug of choice. Judging by the audience reaction, beer seemed to be the most popular substance to abuse. When Petty got to the verse "I fell in love with a girl on china white," the audience hushed audibly, as if it disapproved of Tom dilly-dallying with a heroin addict.

Ever since Ray Davies of the Kinks had audiences sing "Happy Birthday" to brother Dave every night for an entire tour, people could find themselves suspicious of such an obvious ploy for audience participation. But when Petty announced it was his new drummer Steve Ferrone's date of birth, the 20,000 or so obliged his request to sing along dutifully.

Though things got a little dull during a slow, perfunctory stab at Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You," everyone snapped to attention for "You're So Bad" and "It's Good to Be King." The latter tune turned out to be the show's musical tour de force, including an ethereal, heavily reverbed solo from Petty under a spinning ballroom light. Petty also performed a menacing, as-yet-unrecorded number, "Driving Down to Georgia," and closed the first set of encores with the song that began it all--"American Girl." Anyone looking up at the big screens at any given moment of this show would've caught big, goofy grins on Petty and company's faces as they bounced up and down and tapped their feet like those old Beatle cartoons. It makes you wonder why bands half their age can't muster up a tenth of their enthusiasm, let alone sustain it for two hours.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri