I've been slipping a bit this week with my pledge to see as many classic rock shows as I can this summer (sorry Ringo, Chicago, Santana and Steve Winwood), distracted by more contemporary acts like the Flaming Lips and Band of Horses.
But I got back in the saddle Thursday night (July 15) with a band that has never let me down before: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Here's the thing about Petty: The dude is in no hurry. He doesn't chase trends, doesn't pack the stage with unnecessary gadgets to distract you from the music and doesn't move around all that much anymore. But you know what he and the Heartbreakers do?
They play rock and roll.
A quaint idea, I know. A few years ago, I saw them at the United Center in Chicago and I walked away thinking, "Man, that band has nothing but hits!" Petty and company could easily fill their nearly two-hour set with songs that you know every word to. In fact, they opened Thursday night's show with a handful of tunes they could have easily saved for the encore.
"You Don't Know How It Feels" was like a slow stroll through night air that was thick as a wool blanket, with the pumped-up, sweat-soaked faithful eager, as always, to follow Petty's advice to "roll another joint." A jazzy "I Won’t Back Down" rang with the signature sound of Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell's 12-string Rickenbacker guitars and "Free Fallin'" was a perfect example of what makes this band timeless.
His arms outstretched in a kind of victory pose, Petty led his band through the tune in no hurry, like they knew exactly where this train was headed and were fine with whenever they arrived. Though set list didn't vary much from previous shows on the tour in support of their new blues-inflected album Mojo, surprises like the Fleetwood Mac cover "Oh Well" jazzed up the first half of the show, with Campbell tearing off a tasty dirt floor solo and Petty enthusiastically shaking the maracas behind him.
The hazy blues of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" had the perfect lethargic feel for a hot July night on the banks of the Ohio River, and "Honey Bee" was molasses thick and sticky, ending with a barrelhouse piano roll from ace keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Every great rock band has one song with an intro so killer your hair stands up on end when you hear the first note. Petty has a couple of those, with "Breakdown" offering one of the finest, with a chorus that was made for audiences to shout along to. The swampy pace of the classic song was fitting for a band that emerged from the bogs of southern Florida, highlighting an economy of movement over flashy solos as Petty looked up from under hooded eyes as he scatted through a teasing mid-section on the way to a fiery blues outro.
Even after nearly four decades in the game, the band still have to move units, so the next five (!) tunes spotlighted Mojo, dipping into the doomy, gothic Beatles psychedelia-meets-Led Zeppelin drone of "Good Enough" into the juke-joint boogie of "Running Man's Bible" and the trippy heat mirage stroll of "First Flash of Freedom."
Then it was back to the red meat, with a sly, mostly acoustic "Learning to Fly," a loping "Don't Come Around Here No More" that ended with a Slash-worthy solo from Campbell and the still punchy "Refugee."
As the crowd hooted "Encore," I kept thinking back to the end of "Refugee." I was concentrating on Petty's face as he wandered the stage and locked eyes with his band mates and I just couldn't help but think that even while playing one of their oldest hits, which they've probably played 1,000 times (or more), these guys looked like they still mean it and are having fun on the road that never ends.
They still believe in these songs, and that's why in a summer when some of their classic rock peers are struggling to put asses in seats, the place was still packed as the final strains of "American Girl" rang out, with just a trickle of fans sneaking out early to beat the traffic.