Sunday, August 24, 2014

Petty Criticism: Early Rockers Too Sparse, but New Songs Lift Heartbreakers Above Mid-Tempo Groove -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
w/ opening act Steve Winwood
United Center, Chicago
August 23, 2014

The first rock concert I attended of my own volition was by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on June 17, 1981, when I was just 12 years old.

As part of a radio promotion, The Loop--WLUP 97.9 FM, which still exists today--bought all tickets to Petty's concert at the Rosemont Horizon (on the Hard Promises tour) and gave them away.

By virtue of standing in line at the FlipSide at Lincoln Village, I got a pair, and my dad took me to the show.

Although I was happy to be there--though dissuaded from buying a $12 concert jersey--I remember thinking how much older my dad seemed than everyone else there.

He was just a year older than I am now, and 18 years younger than Tom Petty is.

And by the looks of the crowd at Saturday night's show at the United Center, I am not the only one who is growing old with the Heartbreakers.

Though a bit oddly, unlike my dad, I was on the young side of the full house.

Including last night, I have now seen Tom Petty and his erstwhile band eight times since 1981 and, while with the last being in 2008 I have never before written a review, they would all largely have had the same gist as this one...

That while I love the man, his band and their music, enough to see them every time they tour--and have always liked them in concert--I haven't loved Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a live act as much as I want to.

Tour after tour, and again Saturday night at the UC, Petty includes several of the same mid-tempo songs from 1989-1993 as staples: "I Won't Back Down," "Learning to Fly," "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "Free Fallin'"

All of these are good songs individually--and clear singalong crowd pleasers for most--with the latter being one of my favorites of Petty's entire catalog.

But with three of these songs among the first 8 played, along with a lesser-played one of similar era and ilk--"Into the Great Wide Open"--and two covers ("So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n Roll Star" and "Baby, Please Don't Go"), it was hard for me to "get into" the show early on as much as I wanted.

And a similar vibe weighted down a good portion of the rest of the 2-hour show, as well. (See the full Tom Petty Chicago setlist on

This is largely because the great Mr. Petty, while showing he has written many a catchy pop song, wasn't letting one of the greatest American rock bands of all-time rock.

Yes, the band burned on the tail end of "Baby, Please Don't Go" and sounded invigorated in showcasing songs from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' really terrific new album, Hypnotic Eye, their best since the 1980s. 

"American Dream Plan B," "Forgotten Man," "U Get Me High" and "Shadow People" all came off well and showed--like other favorites Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam--that despite being hugely successful for decades, Petty still has common-man empathy and is emphatically (and melodically) angered by the financial & societal injustices that continue to proliferate.

But though in one way it's a great testament to Petty & his band (including Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Steve Ferrone and an additional sideman, Scott Thurston) to say that his newest songs were among the concert's highlights--and this is without their playing my three favorite Hypnotic Eye tracks: "Fault Lines," "Red River" and "All You Can Carry"--there's also a considerable quibble that it exposes.

For years I have been telling anyone who would listen--mainly just me--that I really wish Petty would mine his great pre-1983 catalog much deeper in concert.

Album tracks like "A Thing About You," "Straight Into Darkness," "Change of Heart," "Kings Road," "One Story Town" and "Runaway Trains" (the latter from 1987) are among TP & the HB's best songs, along with better-known cuts "I Need to Know," "Listen to Her Heart," "Don't Do Me Like That," "Even the Losers," "The Waiting," and "You Got Lucky"  that were included on their 1993 Greatest Hits album. (Check out My Petty Setlist on Spotify.)

Yet none of these were played on Saturday night, and many never or rarely at Petty shows I've seen.

And just when I began to think that maybe I was being a Petty douchebag for getting frustrated at one of my favorite artists playing what he wants to play rather that what I'd prefer to hear--especially as he's still filling stadiums at 63 and Saturday's crowd was raucously appreciative--he and the band ripped through Hard Promises' "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)."

Per, this was just the second time this tour the 1981 song was played, and it sounded really fantastic. Validating--along with stellar renditions of early hits but longtime concert staples "Refugee" and "American Girl"--my sense that it would intensify Petty's concerts, my emotional investment and my satisfaction if he would occasionally throw in a few of the songs I cited a few paragraphs back.

Certainly I understand that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers long ago earned the right to play what they want to play, and--given the full house and great applause, for which Tom effusively expressed his gratitude--they're obviously still doing a whole lot right.

Including, in the eyes of many--whether seeing the band for the first time or repeatedly like me--trotting out "Learning to Fly" and "Mary Jane's Last Dance" again and again in lieu of ripping through more MIA early rockers.

To Petty's credit, relative rarities "Rebels," "Angel Dream (No. 2)" and "Yer So Bad"--played consecutively, with beautiful, sparse acoustic takes on the first two--sounded wonderful, further reiterating the benefit of mixing things up a bit.

And my @@@@ rating (out of 5) genuinely means to connote that I liked the show much more than I didn't.

But in a year in which I've seen several all-time favorites--Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty, Paul Simon (+ Sting), Ringo Starr, Bob Mould--plus artists whose oeuvres I know & like considerably less than Petty's (such as Santana, Richard Thompson, New Order and Barry Gibb), in being truthful I must admit that I enjoyed his performance less than any of theirs.

Though I will say that in addition to sending me out into the night rather buoyantly with a closing run of "Refugee," "Runnin' Down a Dream," "You Wreck Me" and "American Girl"--with a cover of The Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" also in the encores--Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers made sure the first hour was quite pleasing by enlisting the legendary Steve Winwood as an opening act.

At 66 and sporting gray mutton chops, the man who sang "Gimme Some Lovin'" at 16 (with the Spencer Davis Group) still sounds strong of voice, and is an extraordinary musician on piano/organ and guitar.

Winwood's hourlong opening set was a bit more relaxed than emphatic, but with a pair of drummers, a sax player and a guitarist, some truly fantastic songs--Spencer Davis Group's "I'm A Man," Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home," Traffic's "Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys," "Empty Pages," "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and Winwood's solo hit "Higher Love"--were done adequate justice, and once it filled in, the crowd bestowed a well-deserved ovation.

I would have loved to have heard "While You See a Chance," but Winwood was good enough in exploring his past glories--if only in small part--to make me wish to see him do another headlining show.

He also played with Petty in 2008 at the United Center, and with Eric Clapton the following year.

But if he wants to hit the Chicago Theatre or a similar venue with his fine band, I'll be there.

And I'll probably be back the next time Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers come through town.

Still hoping to hear more of the old...and more of the new. 

Here's Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' terrific version of "A Woman In Love (It's Not Me)" posted to YouTube by ZepCowboy:

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