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Twenty songs, two hours. Ho-hum — another typical Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert, right?
Factor in this: a small venue, deep tracks the band hasn’t deployed in ages – including two that Petty said they’d never played live – and no “American Girl” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” What?! No, this was a special night.
The band was playing a pledge-drive benefit for KCSN, Cal State Northridge’s public radio outlet. The longtime classical music station switched to a genre-mixing “smart rock” format this year, and its fall pledge drive is aimed at boosting the station power to reach a much wider audience. KCSN’s program director, industry veteran Sky Daniels, called out radio behemoths Clear Channel and Cumulus during his introduction:. “They have an obligation to shareholders,” he said. “We have an obligation to you.”
And Petty, the longtime maverick and Champion of the Little Guy, agreed to play two nights at the Plaza del Sol Performance Center, a 500-seat on-campus hall whose two-window concession stand ran out of beer, wine and water before the Heartbreakers even went on. (Sets by Jakob Dylan and SoCal-based singer Lissie opened the show.)
“This is really something, man,” Petty told the crowd early on. “We weren’t all in the same country yesterday, but we practiced backstage.” (He noted later that drummer Steve Ferrone “was in Belgium this morning and in Northridge tonight.”) Petty added, “We’re gonna try to play a lot of deep tracks for you tonight.”
The statement seemed dubious when the band went into the radio staple “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” But the next song made good on the promise – and set the tone for the show. “We’re gonna try this one,” Petty said. “This is a really old song.” Indeed. The Heartbreakers reached back to their 1976 debut for the driving, biting “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It).” If old fans sometimes pine for Stan Lynch’s laconic drum style on songs like that, they can’t fault Ferrone’s perfectionist approach. And Mike Campbell, the Rodney Dangerfield of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarists, seemed energized by the chance to dust off some long-dormant old solos.
After that nugget came “Lover’s Touch,” a track from last year’s Mojo that Petty said they’d “never played before on a stage.”
“I guess I should say something about why we’re here,” Petty said about a half-hour in. “First of all, nothing scares corporate radio like public radio.” He then addressed the big story of the week on Los Angeles airwaves: The sacking of Petty pal and The Last DJ inspiration Jim Ladd from Cumulus-owned KLOS. “Jim Ladd was fired this week for having an imagination,” he said. Petty went on to bemoan how music stars today are made on “game shows.” “Everybody wins, but you get f—in’ ripped off,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what: We would not win American Idol.”
After a loud cheer, he said, “This is for Jim,” and the band played a typically defiant “I Won’t Back Down.”
Later, Petty said with a grin, “It’s nice to be in the Valley.” The perfect setup for “Free Fallin’,” right? Not this night; the unpredictable nature of the show continued as they went back to the Mojo record – which they mined a half-dozen times – for “Takin’ My Time,” with its ancient blues riff. Campbell let loose on the solo.
“I think it’s been 10 years since we played this,” Petty said in announcing “Have Love Will Travel,” easily the highlight of 2002’s The Last DJ album. Key lyric in keeping with the theme of radio freedom: “And the lonely DJ’s digging a ditch/Trying to keep the flames from the temple.” Outstanding.
Then it was back to the night’s other theme: shakin’ up that recently tired Heartbreakers set list. “We were comin’ to this gig, and we said, ‘Let’s play a bunch of shit we don’t know,’ ” Petty said. After a pause, he added, “I don’t think we’ve ever played this – I’m nervous.” Result: the beautiful ballad “To Find a Friend” from 1994’s underrated “solo” record Wildflowers. It was followed by the equally quiet and lovely “Angel Dream (No.2),” from follow-up album She’s the One, the soundtrack to Edward Burns’ 1996 film.
Petty called out his “All-American, Hall of Fame, shit-kickin’ rock ’n’ roll band,” and they went to Mojo again. “I Should Have Known It,” as it did on last year’s tour, stood out among the new songs: That huge riff, recurring lyric of “it’s the last time you’re gonna hurt me” and Campbell’s hardest solo of the night signal a Petty concert staple going forward.
He ended the set with “Refugee,” catnip for those who had paid big bucks and lamented the lack of hits. The encore of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” – with ace keys man Benmont Tench doing his best Johnnie Johnson — and ’90s radio hit “You Wreck Me” was a rollicking rock ’n’ roll treat.
With the band still playing at their peak and a set that mined that golden catalog better than any local Heartbreakers show in ages, this was a most memorable night. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 500 or 500,000 – it scares me to death,” Petty said. If that’s true, it never shows.
Jefferson Jericho Blues
Listen to Her Heart
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)
I Won’t Back Down
Takin’ My Time
Champagne and Reefer
Have Love Will Travel
When a Kid Goes Bad
To Find a Friend
Angel Dream (No. 2)
First Flash of Freedom
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
You Wreck Me
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