POP MUSIC REVIEW : Petty & Heartbreakers Take a Classic Stance
The stage design for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ current tour is the interior of a tent with the air of a huge stately drawing room, garnished with such furnishings as cattle horns, a suit of armor, a totem pole, a stuffed bear and Egyptian hieroglyphics--all emblems that, one way or another, suggest classic .
Indeed, this is the tour that presents Petty, who plays the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa tonight, as “classic rocker,” as in “classic rock” the radio format, as in familiarity.
Opening the Southern California leg of their tour on Tuesday at San Diego State University’s Open Air Theatre, Petty and band turned in a hits-and-almost-nothing-but-the-hits show that gave the people what they wanted, few punches or surprises pulled. Packed with one great song after another as the show was designed to be, it was what you might call classically predictable.
Petty’s interest in so soundly reaffirming the status quo seems curious at this time. The album the tour is ostensibly promoting, “Full Moon Fever,” has been widely touted as Petty’s first “solo” record, mostly without the Heartbreakers, and is indeed something of a pleasant departure, if not exactly a radical one.
As for emotion and humor, it puts itself out on the line. If it’s not his meatiest effort, it may just be the singer-songwriter’s most purely enjoyable recording in a decade. It’s not like it’s a risk that failed, either: “Full Moon” is Petty’s biggest-selling album in many moons.
So why is he out on the road with such a safe revue, assuring us early on, “Yeah, it’s the old band back together again,” as if there’s been a public clamor for him to get off this solo stuff?
Surely it’s not for the sake of his audience, which no doubt would have accepted a more adventuresome tour with guest musicians and more of the unusual flavor of the current album just as rabidly as it consumes this greatest-hits package. It might have more to do with Petty’s relationship with the Heartbreakers themselves--and, indeed, the future interests of keeping “the old band back together"--than it has to do with us.
As status quos go, though, this is a fairly terrific one. Few lead guitarists are more reliable or tasteful than Mike Campbell. Though he rarely solos, Benmont Tench’s piano and organ are the glue that holds most of the songs together. And Stan Lynch and Howie Epstein couldn’t be a less flashy or more solid rhythm section. Together they’re as effortlessly tight as a pack of friendly session players, which is what they’ve one by one turned into in their off time.
Many of the show’s brighter moments were all too familiar to anyone who’s seen a Heartbreakers tour or two--the solo rendition of the first half of “The Waiting,” the mass audience vocal version of the first chorus of “Breakdown,” Petty’s speedy, clockwork roaming of the stage in search of audience approval.
Even the concert’s surprises had a “classic rock” feel: versions of two Byrds songs, plus selections from the songbooks of Elvis Presley, the Clash and the Georgia Satellites. Introducing one of those Byrds numbers, Petty intoned, “I hate goin’ down the song list. I’m gonna put another song in here, if you don’t mind.”
The crowd went wild, of course, but there is something suspect about being made to feel so grateful for a little spontaneity. Other great rock ‘n’ roll bands add songs to their sets all the time without feeling compelled to announce that they’re about to be off-the-cuff.
Case in point: the Replacements, who are opening the show on almost all of Petty’s summer tour dates. Aside from the opening and closing numbers of their 45-minute set, the Replacements were most assuredly not operating from a set list.
Four of the first seven numbers sounded unfamiliar even to hard-core fans, and the next two after that sounded mostly or wholly improvised, before the foursome returned to some semblance of normality. (That is, if you can call it normal to let their climactic number and biggest hit, “I’ll Be You,” just sort of fade out instead of end with a bang.)
This blatant disregard for propriety will come as good news to fans who have fretted that recent headlining shows by the woolly quartet were a little on the safe side.
Petty and the Replacements share the Pacific Amphitheatre stage tonight, and Dion will open for Petty Saturday through Monday at the Universal Amphitheatre. The Replacements, meanwhile, headline the Country Club on Saturday and Sunday.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the Replacements play at 7:30 tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $22.50. Information: (714) 634-1300.