Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Raised On Hard Promises
Milwaukee, WI (Summerfest)
June 26th, 2010
In what is turning out to be one of the bloodiest summers ever for concerts, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are proving to be recession proof. As the industry hobbles along there still seems to be an insatiable thirst for Petty and his band year after year and whether they have a new record or not doesn't seem to matter. The enthusiasm and impassioned vibes were indefinable as the house lights went out and the band took to the stage. "Listen To Her Heart" kicked things off with led by the airy guitar of Mike Campbell. Following in quick succession was "You Don't Know How It Feels", the Wildflowers cut which is a showcase for the Heartbreakers fine form; the knife-sharp thwack of Steve Ferrone's drums, Mike Campbell's reverberating riffs, Ron Blair's perpetual bass, Thurston's effective harmonica fills and lead vocal by Tom Petty that is flat out irrefutable. However, there was one element that may not have immediately stood out but was essential; Benmont Tench. Tench is the secret ingredient that makes the Heartbreakers music so indelible. The way he can subtlety inserts an organ fill, or can dig up emotions with clasping his hands on a few keys or signaling a song to life. As much as guitarist Mike Campbell gets to excel in the limelight, Tench is habitually in the trenches making what Campbell does a reality. He's the glue to not only hold the band together, but the guy who gives the Heartbreakers their distinctive flavor.
The Marcus Amphitheater is an old school shed that is unbelievably cozy with great sightlines from all angles and the Summerfest atmosphere (the world's largest music festival to boot) makes the shows that occur over the eleven days atypical from customary Milwaukee shows. There's a feeling in the air and the crowds are more heated than at other times during the year. Chalk it up to girls in their summer clothes, the whiff of tobacco, great food or that insatiable buzz of beer; whatever it is, it makes for some of the best rock n' roll shows year after year. Petty and the Heartbreakers are no different and with two headline shows this year in Milwaukee further proves the hunger for their music, which the crowd welcomed with open arms, new and old alike. "Breakdown" had a giddy sing-a-long reminding us that few artists have songs so steeped in the history of rock while simultaneously containing a chorus so heavy hitting. "Don't Come Around Here No More" is a treasure of a song with a nod to the psychedelic and the strobe light madness is a bona fide classic. "Learning To Fly" evokes questions of how you keep the fire burning while keeping the search for soul an on-going existence. Throughout their 95-minute set, the momentum was always steamrolling ahead, even when the band took a portion in the middle of the show to showcase four numbers in a row off of Mojo their just released record. Ironically, as the industry fades and is in a continual state of fatigue, Petty had his highest charting debut and highest first week sales for an album with no track riding pop stations and even for his most loyal fans is a head bender. With a new album in tow (all ticket purchases come with a free download of the album), the band didn't disappoint by testing the waters with some novel material. Mojo is a record full of strengths if a tad too long. However, in concert they stayed close to the album's more forthright tracks including the album opener "Jefferson Jericho Blues" with its swelling and foot stomping blues beat. "Good Enough", the closing cut on Mojo is a strident number led by a wailing guitar by Mike Campbell. I'm not entirely sure it worked in concert, but make no mistake, it was true to itself and ballsy. The bluesy-rock material of Mojo is set-up as a showcase for the entire band, but it is Campbell who often sold the spotlight with his lean soul-bearing six-string solos. They may not be flashy but ultimately serve the song. "Don't Pull Me Over" had a continual reggae riff highlighted by Scott Thurston and some dream inducing organ fills by the always spectacular Tench. If there's a downside to the Mojo material is they were too close to their album counterparts. One of the beauties of seeing a band as good as the Heartbreakers is their ability to manipulate the material and present something more in concert. However, capping the four song set of Mojo was the Zep heavy "I Should Have Known it", the album's best cut which was equally astonishing in concert. Campbell flexed his best Jimmy Page guitar strut (on a Les Paul no less) making you wonder what Robert Plant could have done with the song. Regardless, it's a signal to the continuing legacy of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the song was welcomed with the applause usually saved for material from their Greatest Hits record.
So what's the downside? As sturdy as the performances were, there are two elephants that go hand in hand that can't be overlooked. This tour has found Petty's highest ticket price of his career. It's a 100% mark up from the 2003-2003 tour. It's nearly double what his 2005 trek was and a third more than his 2008 tour. Live Nation apparently approached Petty with a guarantee too large to turn down. It's just a stunning turn of face from a man who created an entire album based around the evil of trying to conglomerate rock n' roll on his 2002 disc, The Last DJ. With that being said, something not being fed to the press is the contests and freebies that Petty is giving away from his website. It's quiet, receiving little promotion and is benefitting the fans. Every week Petty runs several contests on his website for upcoming shows and fans are picked as winners and given two tickets to the show of their choice. What they're not advertising is that these seats are often in the first fifteen rows. These tickets aren't being advertised on radio or random websites, but Petty's own. He should be giving them away to alternate ways to bring someone into the show who doesn't know his music, but he's choosing those who already know him and his music, this deserves to be recognized. Yes he took the Live Nation money and appears to have made a compromise on his beliefs, but that hasn't stopped him from reaching out and taking care of his fans in a distinctive and rewarding manner.
The other shortcoming was that this was the shortest Petty show I have seen at 95-minutes and a mere seventeen songs. If you took both his Friday and Saturday shows at Summerfest and combined them, they were still shorter than Springsteen's performance at Harley Davidson's 105th Birthday Celebration two summers ago. Granted, I wasn't awed with the Springsteen show as it contained poor pacing and took nearly two hours for the crowd to get into it. There's a fine middle line to be found and Petty and the Heartbreakers should be doing two-hours minimally every night and longer sets on those special evenings. As demonstrated by the phenomenal The Live Anthology which came out in 2009, this is a band who doesn't have a shortage of material and their grasp of the rock n' roll songbook is staggering. I just wish they showcased more of this muscle in front of the Summerfest crowd. In Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One he spoke of his time touring with the Heartbreakers in the 1980's. Early in their partnership, Benmont Tench would continually pursue him to play certain songs, urge him to dig deeper and on Dylan's last tour with the Heartbreakers, he did just that. I wish Tench would get in Petty's ear to do the same now. When the band introduced into "King's Highway", it validated my desire for the band to dig deeper. The album opener from Into the Great Wide Open was delivered in a full fury performance amplifying the tacit creed between band and fan. "King's Highway" also served as a cue of how opulent and cosmic their catalog is and precisely why it should be exploited on a nightly basis. Sticking to largely the same set night to night is a disservice to the Heartbreaker's song book and legacy. There are dozens of forgotten songs in there and if The Live Anthology proved anything last year it's how heady this band is on the concert stage.
While many yearn for more variety in the set lists, it's hard to deny some of the essential material. "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'" found a swelling of voices reinforce the song, take it to new heights and for a few minutes, makes you feel as if all is right with the world. Watching Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is more than uplifting but a reminder of the instinctual power of rock n' roll and how it can speak to us. Of the classic rockers out there who have toured the last few years only U2 has a more sundry audience. Incongruously as labels have failed in nurturing upcoming talent, those with the preeminent catalogs are alluring a whole new generation to their songs in a way no one could have foreseen. The fury, the frustration and the fight within these songs make them as important and vital today as anything on the present landscape. "Refugee" found the 23,000 more rapturous than at any other point. The performance wasn't all that dissimilar from other shows or tours and yet it offered a swift retaliation point for the audience against the battles of everyday life. Rooted in exploding volcanic emotions, "Refugee" encompassed the runaway spirit of rock n' roll like a thief in the night. In concert these songs expand beyond a mere need to entertain and turns into a form of expression where one can purge their anger away. Based on this performance, it doesn't seem like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will run out of mojo any time soon. I just hope they continue to take chances, fight the status quo and enlighten even the most jaded fans and critics. It's ok to be a prisoner of rock n' roll, just don't the chains stifle your creativity on and off the stage.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Remembering Tom Petty