Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Better than: Arena-style Tom Petty
When a performer says he's playing deep cuts and rarities, that can cause trepidation. Best case scenario, you get to geek out to songs you never thought you'd hear live. Worst case, you get a bunch of crap that's unknown for good reason.
It was the former rather than the latter last night in Hollywood as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kicked off their six night stint at the Fonda. Petty promised that the residency (the band's first run of small theater gigs since 2003) wouldn't be a greatest hits scenario. The band, now well into their third decade together, jammed loose and heavy on songs both familiar and less so.
The chance to see Petty, one of the major arena rockers of our time, in a 1,200 person venue made for some high anticipation. By 6pm, the line to get into the Theatre snaked down Hollywood Boulevard and wrapped around Gower. Inside though, the Fonda didn't feel uncomfortably packed or at all oversold. In the pit, there was space to move around, which was excellent, because most everyone was about to start dancing.
See also: Our slideshow of the concert
The band came onstage just after
8pm 9pm, Petty wearing a green military style jacket with some embellishments, because he's Tom Petty and his clothes are always a little fancy. He look great — bearded, healthy, smiling — his signature shag haircut blowing in the breeze. The group opened with a cover of The Byrds' “So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star” and followed it immediately with Full Moon Fever's “Love Is a Long Road,” which sent a cheer through the crowd as we all realized in unison that when Petty says “deep cuts,” he simply means some of the best songs off his best albums that anyone who's more than a casual fan is dying to hear anyways.
“It's so good to be here in Hollywood,” Petty declared. “We're only going to be playing deep stuff tonight, but we'll give you one right now that you can sing along to.” It was “I Won't Back Down,” and we sang along with an thrilled enthusiasm bordering on glee.
Next came “Fooled Again” from the band's eponymous 1978 debut. Four songs in, and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell already making the audience break out in spontaneous cheering via his guitar solos. Next came the the bluesy “Cabin Down Below” and “Good Enough” from the group's 2010 release Mojo, with Petty himself seeming surprised with the enthusiasm with which this newer song was received. “You guys are hardcore fans,” he mused. “We've got so much to play still.”
While the evening's deep cuts only premise didn't stop audience members from making requests (“Play “Free Fallin'!' Play 'Mary Jane's Last Dance!'”) the group narrowed in on jamming, turning songs including “Melinda” into druggy, sexy, psychedelic extended jams that allowed Campbell to remind us that's he's one of the best guitar players in the game. Things went acoustic for a few jams including a delicate, truly special rendition of “Rebels” from 1985's Southern Accents. Benmont Tench's honky tonk saloon style piano jamming too was easily a high point of the evening.
All these old songs played during this return to Hollywood seemed to arouse nostalgia in Petty, who, after announcing that last night was his 11 year wedding anniversary, reminisced about moving to Los Angeles from Florida when he was 23 years old because he loved the bands out here. “The Byrds, The Doors,” all those legends that ran the strip back in the day, he said smiling during the impromptu Storyteller's session.
Before the show, Petty went on, he and the band stood in the alley behind the Fonda, remembering all the times they had stood in similar alleys behind The Whisky and The Roxy and all the other venues populating their nearly forty years of rock star memories. That's the thing about Petty. At 62, he's a member of a rare and shrinking club of truly legendary top tier rock legends. As if to remind us so, Petty played “a song for my friend George” before covering the Traveling Wilbury's “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” his singing sounded eerily similar to that of his supergroup bandmate Bob Dylan.
What sets Petty apart from all of his icon buddies though, is the signature gothic Florida bayou spook sound instilled into his bluesier tunes. His music, so American, is epic, but it somehow moves slow, much like Petty himself. Last night he never rushed around the stage or appeared as though anything was particularly urgent. He moves like molasses, this chilled out SoCal sonic shaman music man, making everything cool and groovy in his wake. Campbell too, makes it look similarly effortless, his facial expression barely changing while he delivered solo after solo.
Such jamming was arguably the high point of the two hour (to the minute) show, although in the end Petty and his Heartbreakers acquiesced on their deep cuts embargo, rounding out the night with mega-hits “Refugee” and “Runnin' Down a Dream,” the lights of the Fonda going wild as Campbell nailed the soaring guitar climax of the latter, bringing the audience to a place of frenzied singalong classic rock euphoria. The band then left the stage, and although it wasn't immediately clear if they'd be back, the cheering and stomping and clapping never ceased, only increased, until they returned to play Wildflowers love song rocker “You Wreck Me” and then, finally, hugely, triumphantly, “American Girl.”
After the song, the six men assembled stage left, putting their arms around each other and posing for photos, Petty and Campbell each accepting a sunflower from someone in the audience and Petty walking back to the mic stand to say “God bless you” before flashing a peace sign and ambling offstage, smiling all the while.
Personal bias: When I got my driver's license I drove around the greater Green Bay area with “Runnin' Down a Dream” on repeat, because I felt so good, like anything was possible.
Overheard in the crowd: “Should we light this joint up here, or light this joint up outside?”
Random notebook dump: “Tom Petty is kind of an out of nowhere surprise sex symbol right now.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continue their residency at The Fonda tonight, June 4, and on June 6, 8, 9 and 11.
Full setlist below