Not more than two seconds into a thunderous opener of “You Wreck Me,” a knock-out whiff of Moroccan hash blooms from somewhere a few rows back, and most people around me lift their noses to the air and sniff like cats in a fish market, hoping to elicit a mild high. And as soon as Tom Petty spreads his arms like some lost eagle on stage, slowly meandering through the band with a mildly disturbing aimlessness as they play with these “oh, here goes Tom again” looks on their faces, I understand that the dudes behind me aren’t the only ones who are stoned. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be–this is a Tom Petty show, where people go to feel good, forget all the bullshit of their daily lives for a couple of hours, and cheer on the songs that sneaked their way, somehow, into some of their most vivid memories.
I wonder which memory revisits the couple in front of me, as they openly embrace immediately upon hearing the first few strokes of “Free Falling” yawn from Petty’s guitar, a vaguely florescent cloud of weed smoke cloaking their silhouettes in the dark arena–maybe it’s the song that accompanied a first kiss in a parked car under the bridge, maybe it’s the song that reminds her boyfriend of all the horrible tramps he survived to find the woman he’s with, maybe it’s nothing anyone else in this writhing crowd could possibly imagine–yes, probably that–not even our closest friends and relatives are aware of even a fraction of the personal mysteries we take to our graves, after all.
Tom Petty: “Listen to her Heart,” Live in Gainsville (2006)
Few bands deliver as steady an onslaught of syrupy riffs and hooks as Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, a monumentally underappreciated talent that cynical Emo wannabes dismiss in their desperate pursuit of an identity their friends will approve of. A public distaste for the likes of Tom Petty is as much a rite of passage among that crowd as a good ol’ fashioned paddling at the frat house; and it’s a damned shame, because the human saga that unfolds at one of these shows is as humbling as it is inspiring. Take the beer-bellied dad with a backwards Marlins cap squeezing his huge, balding head up front, for instance, clutching the gates that close him into the first row seats he probably won by calling into a local radio show one day, hoping to score a pair of seats for himself and his kid, maybe to give him a taste of what “pop music” sounded like back before it meant more than a pair of porcelain boobs and a tongue kiss at the Grammies. The lights that scroll the crowd catch him in their glare for a second–he’s belting out every line of “Listen to Her Heart” with a series of convulsive heaves, every one of which takes maybe another ounce of the world’s weight off his shoulders, if only for one night.
When Mike Campbell busts out the 12-string on “Free Fallin'” or lifts his guitar chest-high and beats another searing solo out of the thing, I almost start to believe he’s one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock ‘n roll. But that’s before Steve Winwood takes the stage to join the band for a killer take on “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and it immediately becomes apparent that Campbell, however accomplished as he may be, is one small trout in a sea of aging but wily sharks. Winwood’s fingers flutter over the guitar he straps on and strums in a single smooth motion–one he’s performed for nearly half a century now–a fact that’s evident in his effortless aplomb as he saunters over the the organ for a surprise from his Spencer David Group days, the enduring miracle of his voice overcoming the band’s noticeably rigid interpretation of “Gimme Some Lovin'”–though the crowd’s relatively indifferent response suggests it’s not an entirely welcome one, with lines to the pisser or the beer stand assembling in the aisles.
Something seems to sour on stage in the aftermath of Winwood’s cameo, as the Heartbreakers stumble out of their cover-by-the-numbers take on “Gimme Some Lovin'” with a frenetic delivery of “Saving Grace,” a newer track from Petty’s admittedly uneven but no-less underrated solo album, 2007’s Highway Companion. The band is obviously insecure in its newer material, as they overreach to turn the tune into a raving rocker with a clutter of misguided noise that ruins what is, in its original form, a blistering and bluesy rocker. For a band that is always remarkably true to each song’s original recording on stage, it’s an especially jarring moment that feels like an eternity.
Tom Petty: “Saving Grace,” Highway Companion (2007)
But a second wind of anthems follows, and you realize, with a modest touch of awe, just how relevant these guys have managed to remain throughout four decades now, tricking high schoolers into a love of Thunderclap Newman’s 1969 hit “Something in the Air” when Petty slapped it onto his greatest hits package in 1994, discovering a polished echo of grunge’s grit on the mischievous staple “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”–a song which, the second Petty unleashes it on stage here in Ft. Lauderdale, is met with the entire crowd’s instantaneous delirium, as if they’ve gone blue in the face holding their breath for this very moment since they took their seats at 8.
Petty and the band hopsctoch in and out of the four decades they swept through–the ’70s (Refugee, American Girl); the ’80s (End of the Line, Runnin’ Down A Dream, Don’t Come Around Here No More); the ’90s (Learning to Fly, Honey Bee, Won’t Back Down). But the true testament to just how many diamonds this band has mined over the years is the crowd of kids who fumble through the lot under the peach glow of parking lot lights after the show, singing their best rendition of “The Waiting,” yet another anthem which, somehow, just couldn’t be crammed into the 150-minutes of rock ‘n roll we witnessed under the dome of Ft. Lauderdale’s Bank Atlantic Center, one of many corporate civic centers cropping up around the country that look every bit as impersonal as their names suggest–a crudeness overshadowed only by the music of those folks who, as Rocky Frisco puts it, “write from the heart, not the wallet.”
Well, Petty’s wallet is doing just fine, but there’s something about the genuinely emotional response his music evokes–that couple embracing before me, the pot-bellied dad screaming the band’s songs back at them with his mesmerized son at his side–that proves beyond any doubt that Petty is one of the heroes Frisco had in mind–an authentic pioneer the likes of whom become fewer and farther between with each passing year.
Ft. Lauderdale Set List 7-15-08
You Wreck Me
Listen to Her Heart
Won’t Back Down
Even The Losers
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
End of the Line (Traveling Wilburys)
Can’t Find My Way Home (w/Steve Windwood)
Gimme Some Lovin’ (w/Steve Winwood)
Learning To Fly
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Runnin’ Down A Dream
Bo Didley’s A Gunslinger/Mystic Eyes