Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Steve Winwood
Rock ’n’ roll, the old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes kind, has been under attack of late. In recent weeks, Gene Simmons of Kiss said that rock was not only dead, but it had been the victim of a homicide (file-sharing, not the butler, did it).Cantankerous folksinger Mark Kozelek, tired of doing acoustic covers of songs by Yes and AC/DC, derided the rising, Tom Petty-influenced The War on Drugs as “beer commercial lead-guitar shit.” More broadly, the whole of rock music from the 1970s and ’80s is frequently knocked as “dad rock,” which is certainly no compliment. But Thursday’s performance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers seemed to counter those who would call the genre a relic, offering compelling proof that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. The band, fast approaching its 40th anniversary, played a spirited set that built momentum and never sagged.
The focus was on the deep passel of radio hits that combine Petty’s sturdy melodies and the fierce jangle of Mike Campbell’s industrial-strength lead lines. While recent albums have veered from radio-friendly anthems to mine blues traditions and the blunt garage rock that first inspired Petty and his mates, the band struck a balance that did not ask any indulgence from the audience. The show’s handful of new songs were delivered in concise versions that emphasized the alluring simplicity of Petty’s writing. The whomping “American Dream Plan B” delivered a sharp early punch, and the dreamy “Shadow People” shifted the mood effectively and featured the stately touch of keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Beyond Petty’s songs, the appeal of the music comes from the outsize abilities of The Heartbreakers, who enjoy the kind of easy rapport mixed with precision that any band would envy. Three of the original players remain, including Campbell, one of the premier, and underrated, rock guitarists in existence. The newer additions—multi-instrumentalist and backup vocalist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone—have been with the band for many years. Ferrone, whose career dates back to the Average White Band, brings a different feel to some of the originals played by the more groove-oriented Stan Lynch, but his power-playing drives the band and sends its songs to the rafters. Bass player Ron Blair’s supple, melodic lines locked in seamlessly with Ferrone’s rhythms.
Petty’s distinctive Roger McGuinn-meets-Bob Dylan vocal delivery is slightly diminished by time, but he cuts the same lean, feline figure that he has since the world first met him in 1977. Prowling the stage wearing a sly grin, shaking a tambourine or a pair of maracas, and genially drawling “thank you so muuuuch” between songs, Petty is every bit the seasoned rock star, yet it never feels like an act. His warm response to the crowd seemed to owe something to the Gainesville, Florida, native being on familiar Southern ground. Certainly “Rebels,” from Southern Accents, has a bit of extra resonance when played south of the Mason-Dixon line. And while the band delivered a hefty selection of hits such as “Free Fallin,” “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down,” there were plenty of gems he elected not to play. Still, longtime fans no doubt appreciated hearing the relatively deep album cut “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” from 1981’s Hard Promises. Sure, “The Waiting” or “Breakdown” would have been nice, but when you have a songbook like his, you have to make some tough choices or else turn into a nostalgia act. Clearly, these guys are not ready to go that route.
In the opening slot was Steve Winwood, another Rock Hall of Fame member, whose set skipped from the jazz-inflected sounds of his late-’60s-era band Traffic to radio-friendly solo hits from the next decade. The set culminated, perhaps inevitably, with “Gimme Some Lovin,” the Hammond B-3-powered rock staple Winwood co-wrote and sang as a teenager with the Spencer Davis Group. His bright tenor voice is still shockingly limber, even in the extended high-range vocal that hit demands. Like Petty, Winwood is extremely well preserved, moving effortlessly from the piano to center stage to play some wailing Stratocaster leads. No surprise that the crowd was far more ecstatic than with your usual opening band, but this was a twin bill that delivered from start to finish.