Sept/08/06- Molson Amphitheatre-Toronto
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Opening act: Blind Boys of Alabama
Under an appropriate crimson full moon…
Arriving in time to line up for beer and check out tour shirts, I heard the last of the Blind Boys opening set, which sounded decent. I’m not familiar with their material, though.
When the lights went up, the band dove into “Listen to her Heart”. Killer opener!
Without a pause, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was cranked out next with an extended solo passage. Petty, with a fine eye for the mood of the crowd, continued with Full Moon Fever singles. The sing-along chorus of “Free Falling” gave everyone an opportunity to join the band for a minute. There was no shortage of love here, though it seemed there was a deliberate attempt to get the radio friendly stuff out of the way early. No problem with that from my end.
The man of the hour delivered a performance that belied his 55 years. “it’s good to see you again..”, he drawled. Roaming the stage and trading solos with Mike Campbell, he didn’t engage in a lot of banter between songs.
No one went scrambling for beer when he announced that they were going to do material from the new CD. “Saving Grace”, the Jimmy Reed/John lee Hooker via ZZ Top inspired taster single from “Highway Companion” held its own amongst the first few monsters tossed out by the band.
“We’re going to play some music by people that inspired us to do this...”
Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was blasted out, note for note (the Yardbirds arrangement, complete with full on rave up at the end.) Then came “Oh Well”. Rarely do you ever hear Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac taken up by any band, with the exception of Judas Priest’s version of “The Green Manalishi” in the late 70’s. Very cool. A liitle Chuck Berry was thrown in for good measure as well as Van Morrison’s “Mystic Eyes” (back to his days with “Them”)
These selections served to confound younger attendees (the ones near me had cartoon question marks over their heads) and those who only knew the hits. I thought that the absence of a Byrds cover was conspicuous, considering his worship of the band. No matter. I wanted him to play "Walls", too.
This is the 30th anniversary tour for the Heartbreakers and an artist with a back catalogue so rich in great material must have a hard time deciding what to put in a two hour set. Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers were well represented. Nothing from late period albums like She’s the One, Echo and The Last DJ. ("Dreamville" would have been excellent...and "Jammin' Me")
An acoustic version of “Learning to Fly” gave Steve Ferrone a rest. Stripped down, it sounded fantastic and made me think of this tune from a new angle.
“Square One” was the highlight of the three tunes he chose to play from the new disc. Played solo, with great vocal support from Scott Thurston, it perfectly complimented everything in the set up to that point.
And the Heartbreakers? Only three remain from the original line up. Bass player Ron Blair returned to the band after 20 years in 2002 and was solid throughout the show. Mike Campbell played jaw-dropping solos, particularly in Refugee and American Girl. He reminds me of Jimmy Page in that he does everything-from finger-picking to slide and beyond-and does it well. Very tasteful and underrated player. Benmont Tench took some extended solos and, despite his virtuoso chops, played every note in service of the songs. Steve Ferrone (joined in 1994) is an atomic clock and got unintentionally “featured” during the first few tunes by a drum heavy mix out front (they fixed it a few tunes in). Scott Thurston is the ultimate utility man (guitar, keys, harp) and provided brilliant harmony vocal support all night. His Roy Orbison impression was dynamite on “Handle with Care”.
The band never had an “off” moment. There was a surreal and beautiful interlude as Campbell and Tench played the outro riff on “It’s Good to be King” in unison and then took the whole thing down to a whisper. Jams were always steered safely back to shore with a telepathy that can only be shared by those who have played together for years. Those four notes literally hung in the air.
Petty repeatedly thanked the crowd and laughed in disbelief at times at the level of heartfelt audience participation. It was great to feel that level of communal excitement build throughout the show. It got better. Think it didn't? Well, it did.
Unbelievable and powerful version of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
Completely shredded the record. The outro solos teamed up with the heavy strobe effects and momentarily tap danced all over my brain. It wasn't just the beer...
Toward the end, the audience was losing their voices and their minds. Petty worked hard, twirling and dancing, daring the sky to open up. During “Running Down a Dream”, the rain was now, literally, unstoppable as the band and storm clouds gathered momentum. Through the encore, despite the downpour (felt bad for the poor bastards on the lawn) no one moved. (Who’s going to leave during a killer “American Girl”? Not I…)
With “American Girl” still ringing in everyone’s ears, the group took their bows and disappeared to an incredible standing ovation.
These guys represent the last links to an era where quality material mattered a lot more than what you looked like.
It was great to see an artist so strong in performance and still vital after 30+ years. Even better was the relief in knowing that he had not turned into an embarrassing joke in the name of crass commerce. (Listen to “The Last DJ” disc if you want a musical elaboration on that train of thought)
I'm glad I didn't miss this one.
The setlist (I may have missed one or two)
LISTEN TO HER HEART MARY JANE'S LAST DANCE I WON'T BACK DOWN FREE FALLIN' SAVING GRACE YOU DON'T KNOW HOW IT FEELS I'M A MAN OH WELL TOO MUCH MONKEY BUSINESS HANDLE WITH CARE Band Intro THE WAITING SQUARE ONE IT’S GOOD TO BE KING DOWN SOUTH CABIN DOWN BELOW LEARNING TO FLY DON'T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE REFUGEE RUNNIN DOWN A DREAM I'M CRYING Encore YOU WRECK ME MYSTIC EYES AMERICAN GIRL