The fans queued up outside the Fillmore in San Francisco suspected something was up when they saw me get in line. Three satanic metal bands were on the bill; what was this guy doing here?
The jeans and sweatshirt weren’t fooling anyone. No leather, no chains, no tattoos. Looking evil, it seems, takes some effort.
“You’re here to see Venom?” one guy asked me, a hard squint in his eyes.
The answer was yes, with an asterisk. I was in San Francisco to report a story on the entrepreneur who bought the old posters and concert soundboard recordings accumulated by Bill Graham, the late rock impressario.
Graham made his name at the Fillmore, and seeing the place in action seemed like a good idea. Viper, High on Fire and Goatwhore just happened to be playing the night I was in town.
The woman taking tickets at the door was as skeptical as the fans.
“You know,” she said, giving me the once-over, “Tom Petty isn’t playing here tonight.”
A devilishly good barb, and it came back to mind Tuesday night when I got a chance to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers play their final show of a six-night residency at the Fonda Theater in Hollywood.
Tom Petty is one of the few major rock stars I hadn’t seen live, and I was thrilled when Times pop music critic Randall Roberts invited me as his guest. But when Randall asked me where I ranked Petty as an artist, I had to be honest. “Second tier,” I said.
No disrepect intended to Mr. Petty. He’s a great songwriter with some of the most memorable lines in rock:
Stop dragging my heart around.
Even the losers get lucky some time.
There’s pigeons down on Market Square, she’s standin’ in her underwear.
OK, that last one is included because it used to make my kids laugh, but there’s no doubt that Petty is a genuine rock poet. With his band of ace musicians he has deservedly commanded the world’s greatest stages.
The Fonda show did not disappoint. There’s nothing like seeing a bigtime band play a small venue, especially an outfit that’s as tight and talented as Petty and the Heartbreakers. And it was great to hear them take on covers such as “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.”
And yet, even after the show, I couldn’t quite put Petty up in that top tier with the Who, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Led Zeppelin and Queen.
Perhaps it was because the concert, for all the skill in execution, didn’t have any of those moments that are truly a surprise, where the band and the music transports the audience somewhere it didn’t expect to go.
Or maybe because things were just too perfect, in an every-hair-is-in-place kind of way. The sound was perfect, the mix was perfect, the setlist was perfect, even the venue was perfect.
Isn’t rock supposed to have ragged edges?
The night at the Fillmore certainly did. The High on Fire set was especially memorable for its lack of pretense. The guitar player pulled his instrument out of a case left out on the stage, never changing guitars or fiddling with a fancy floorboard of effects pedals.
Contrast that with the Heartbreakers show, where Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell switched out one beautiful axe for another after almost every song. Twice, they strapped on matching guitars (sunburst Rickenbackers early in the set, Gibson Firebirds toward the end).
To each his own. However, if Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ever want an opening act that might push it out of its comfort zone, might I suggest Goatwhore?
Follow John Corrigan on Twitter: @jtcorrigan