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.
The Jayhawks opened the evening in fine, unassuming fashion. It's unusual for a band to have two lead singers with high, reedy voices. The harmonies were especially thrilling on the current single, "Blue," and the set closer, "Real Light." There was one delicate moment; any opening act that asks an audience eager to see the headliner, "Have you got time for one more, Phoenix?" is just asking for trouble. Luckily, the Hawks finished the show without incident. Although the band's set probably would have translated better in a smaller, intimate venue (whose wouldn't?), the fact that the band could carry off material from the new album Tomorrow the Green Grass without the strings and pedal steel is noteworthy indeed.--
April 25, 1995
Good God! Who put all that energy into this Jon Spencer, this skinny New York white boy? And where did he learn to spit and snarl like a pit bull with a hangover? And why wasn't there a bass player? And when was the last time you saw a theremin onstage?
Best to ditch these and any other questions in the "rhetorical" file and get right to the point: The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is quite possibly the best live act you'll see in this or any other lifetime. Picture this--two guitarists and a drummer playing some kind of Seventies, funked-up bastardization of the blues with Hoover Dam levels of energy. It's evil. It's bizarre. But it's no gag, no hipper-than-thou joke on you.
What the Blues Explosion does is unique: distorted, gangly stuff that is contained (but never tamed) in a wicked groove by drummer Russell Simmins, late of the Honeymoon Killers. But Spencer is the undeniable star of the show; onstage he is a riveting, wiry stick of a man tossing off distorted guitar lines, gallons of sweat and lyrics that seem to consist mainly of growls and the word "motherfucker." And the frequent litany of Blues Explosion! Blues Explosion! Blues Explosion!
Spencer and company are currently considered hipper than shit by many, and with good reason. He can actually pull off a serious badass persona without being ludicrous, and be ludicrous while acting like a serious badass. If that doesn't seem to make sense, maybe--like with the Boss himself--you have to see the man in person to get it. Suffice to say that Spencer is cool. And if you don't believe me, dig the fact that people who work at Tower, Zia and Eastside Records were in the crowd. He must be doing something right!
And speaking of people in the crowd, the Explosion was blowing 'em away from the start. The front lines were roiling most of the night, and Spencer found himself anointed with a couple of airborne shoes and a few ice cubes during the set. At one point in midlyric, he squinted up at the balcony whence a projectile had come, blew a kiss and flipped middle fingers right and left like Eastwood drawing to kill on some poor sonofabitch. The man gave it up for the people of Phoenix; if you missed him this time, don't make the same mistake twice. All I can say is, Blues Explosion! Blues Explosion! Blues Explosion!-
April 23, 1995
Matthew Sweet pens near-perfect pop songs. That much is evident from his last three solo recordings, all of them crowded with flowery guitar chords, shiny harmonies and post-GED lyrics that question everything from God's will to the next night's wardrobe.
But Sweet's a long way from perfect onstage. That much was equally evident, sometimes painfully so, at the Rockin' Horse.
Things were encouraging enough at the outset, with Sweet taking the stage looking slim and trim, fresh from an apparent victory in his latest battle against bulk. After flashing a toothy smile at the elbow-room-only crowd, Sweet kicked into "Sick of Myself," from his new CD, 100% Fun, and followed with "I've Been Waiting," off his 1991 career effort, Girlfriend. It was an inspired coupling considering the former's sidelong cynicism ("In a world that's ugly and a lie/It's hard to even want to try") and the latter's Pollyanna optimism ("I didn't think I'd find you/Perfect in so many ways"). The songs also complement each other with similar, killer melodies, and they both flirt with total bliss when the vocal harmonies hit.
But that's on disc. The concert renditions were shaggy--at times prohibitively so. And they were further undercut by a muddy sound mix.
The band's sloppiness can be attributed, in part, to lead guitarist Ivan Julian, who'd recently been hired on to replace Sweet's usual guitar slinger, ex-Television star Richard Lloyd. It was Julian's third time out playing Sweet's new stuff, and it showed. Julian's a bona fide guitar god, having noodled fashionably with East Coast acts ranging from Richard Hell to the Bongos. But on this night, he was a deity in training, with Sweet repeatedly glancing across the stage following a curious chord or solo. Bassist Tony Marcillo fared better. The goateed former Cruzado anchored the rhythm section, and his background vocals help tie down Sweet's occasionally sour singing.
Midway through the evening, Sweet and his band started hitting cylinders in proper sequence. "Girlfriend" pitched and rolled with a ragged charm, topped by Julian, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, New York rocker-cool intact, cranking out his best solo of the night. Sweet followed that highlight with "We're the Same," the best song off the new CD and the best showing of the night for Sweet and Marcillo's vocal work.
From there, Sweet played a few songs "unplugged," including a nice take on Girlfriend's plaintive "Winona," another Sweet song that seeds innocence with budding angst: "Could you be my little movie star/Could you be my long lost girl/It's true that I don't even know you/But I'm alone in the world."
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The acoustic interlude was a nice diversion, although it slowed some of the momentum from previous songs. It took a while for the band to return to speed, but Sweet and crew managed to finish strong with the unusually aggressive "Super Baby" and the wonderfully acerbic "Not When I Need It" (killer line: "And you give me what I want/Not when I need it"). Sweet then closed with "Evangaline," an apparent crowd fave that one person loudly requested at every idle moment of the evening. The resulting rendition sufficiently fueled an encore.
Opening act Sonny Landreth, former lead guitarist in John Hiatt's band, cemented his rep with an occasionally astonishing nine-song set. Landreth's slide-guitar work transcends the kind of bayou-bred, genre-strangled hubris his songs most closely approach. Diminutive and bespectacled, Landreth sang softly through his Louisiana twang, allowing original, off-kilter melodies to carry impressive songs like "Meet Your New Landlord" and the especially strong "Shooting for the Moon."
On other, more rootsy tunes, Landreth slipped into predictable guitar-school showmanship, relentlessly proving how well he can use the four fingers on his right hand and the slide-saddled pinky on his left. Too bad. The side-show stuff just took time away from Landreth's considerable singer/songwriter skills.-