Tom Petty is huge. By now, you know if you like Tom; you know if his music has crawled inside your soul and become part of your life's soundtrack, or if you find him simply too hack and unchallenging. In concert, he is a man of few surprises, which is just fine for those of us in the former category.
At Red Rocks on Tuesday night, Sept. 14, Tom and his five Heartbreakers (to look at them, one imagines this name must have been tongue-in-cheek) entertained a huge number of diehard fans. It was a thoroughly satisfying rock show, which included many songs that have over the years slipped into our American collective consciousness.
In support of his most recent CD, Echo, Petty, in black leather pants and trench coat, had the crowd on its feet, thrilled for the entire evening. Unique in the annals of rock, Petty with his aw-shucks attitude and hang-dog looks has quietly and humbly attained superstar status without our realizing it, and without the usual hype (unless you count his amusing videos). At first lumped in with New Wave and punk (the only fresh music of the late '70s), this error was quickly rectified. His music has had surprisingly lasting value; it has aged gracefully, if at all.
His style is almost oxymoronic: It sounds fresh and current, while all of its influences are old. He is inspired by the Byrds, the Beatles, the Searchers, as well as lots of "classic rock" (ironically, some of his songs are now "classic rock"). His anti-pop intonation, nasally speak-singing, is borrowed from Dylan, while his music is the pure pop chiming of the first British rock invasion, with deep American roots.
This half-revival and half-modern style leaves him with few equals. He successfully mines territory which would be anathema to almost any other artist, resulting in a pure pop rock without excess. And Petty is comparable in style to few of his contemporaries. John Mellencamp might be an example, though Mellencamp's music seems dated almost as soon as it is made. Petty is forever bucking musical trends, save his own.
With the first notes of "Jammin' Me" on Tuesday night, all physical discomfort was forgotten (prior to that, the huddled masses streamed about in post-air-raid fashion, trying to find seats that did not exist, a sadistic game of musical chairs which looked like stock footage of blood cells under a microscope). It was loud, swinging, tight arena rock, simply irresistible. The sound was crisp, the playing professional in the best sense.
Benmont Tench, his piano atop a pedestal decorated with faux stained glass, played the piano like ringin' a bell on "Runnin' Down a Dream." Petty sang-talked through "Breakdown" with clarity and a stark sense of purpose, at first playing it just like the record (David Spade would have been happy), before transitioning the song into a Bob Marley-like call-and-mimic crowd chant.
Petty's Echo is an album that at first sounds like more of the same, and then improves with repeated listening. Petty still has a hell of a way with a hook. He played some of Echo's best material Tuesday, including "Swingin'." The song's leisurely pace reveals a songwriter very sure of himself; it might drag in less masterful hands. "Free Girl Now" is inspiring and effective, and a hell of a lot more powerful live than recorded. It proved the ageless power of the simple 4/4 rock song.
Certifiable anthems like "Don't Do Me Like That" and "Don't Come Around Her No More" are among many songs during which Petty not only threatened and demanded, but flaunted his disdain for things grammatical.
Other highlights of the evening included a soulful version of Dave Mason's "Feelin' Alright," a compelling "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and a crisp version of "You Got Lucky," which elicited the comfortable familiarity of a broken-in Little League glove.
But the defining and most moving moment was somewhat of a sleeper hit, "It's Good To Be King." This song emerged in concert, beginning similarly enough to the recorded version before slowly and deliciously building with a counter-beat piano solo which traded licks with Mike Campbell's lovely lead guitar. "King" teased and stretched and sidled, like a particularly attentive lover, moving the crowd with its sinewy aural massage. The magic of Petty's music is its lack of excess, and when he stretches something, it is with a purpose. In less caring hands, this type of mood-building via solos would have been mere musical masturbation, but instead proved as good an argument as any for seeing Petty and the Heartbreakers live.
Current revisionist conventional wisdom attributes depth to Petty's work. Fortunately, that is not true. His lyrics are sometimes insightful, and introspective, but not deep. They are good rock songs, and he was able to show that his repertoire of timeless gems make him among the few artists deserving of his boxed set.
Petty ended the show after a couple of hours, just before the point of diminishing returns; even the greats can overdo it, and Petty seems to have realized that. The show was excellent, the sound pristine and, ultimately, made it almost understandable why so many of us go to all the trouble of seeing a concert at Red Rocks.