Tom Petty Sets' 'Free Fallin''-Free Zone for First of 5 Fonda Shows: Concert Review

Kyleen James
The iconic rocker and his terrific Heartbreakers band give their most hardcore fans a long-awaited reward with sets emphasizing covers and obscurities over the chestnuts.

For possibly the first time in the history of Tom Petty concerts, there were more shouts for “Spike” than “Breakdown” at Monday night’s Fonda Theatre show. Clearly, the audience had gotten the memo: The run of five shows at the Fonda would be a “Free Fallin’”-free zone.

It’s not that Petty has suddenly given up on giving the masses what they want. Look at the set lists for his amphitheatre shows this summer and you’ll find most of the greatest hits firmly in place. But for this five-night stand in Hollywood, which echoes a series of shows the Heartbreakers just wrapped up at New York’s Beacon, the idea is to reward the hardcore faithful with obscurities, covers, and deep album tracks… along with a few actual smashes, lest anyone’s date be frustrated at not having gotten to sing along with “American Girl.”

The result was assuredly the most satisfying show Petty’s done in Los Angeles in about 30 years… tempered by the frustration that tomorrow night’s show or the one after might be even better, since the set lists are radically different from night to night and, who knows, he’ll probably even pull “Spike” out by the end of the run (to the consternation of the very hoarse enthusiast who didn’t get his wish Monday).

Petty’s nod to the true faithful with these shows follows Prince’s recent tour of clubs and small theaters in which he also emphasized non-hits, covers, and a smattering of new material. Maybe it’s too small a sampling to call it a trend, but what devotee wouldn’t get behind the idea of career rockers splitting their performance output between big outdoor shows for fair-weather fans and smaller, catalog-delving concerts for the hardcore? (Just imagine how the Stones would be hailed as heroes instead of opportunists right now if they’d done entire shows’ worth of the deep album tracks they’re now doling out only a couple at a time on their current trek.)

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Each night, they’re opening with the same song: the Byrds’ 1967 “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” the perfect starter for these occasions since it comes from outside the singer’s repertoire but could easily be mistaken for a Petty oldie, having obviously been a key catalyst for Petty. Other covers included the trucker ballad “Willin’,” which owed more to Lowell George’s original version than Linda Ronstadt’s popularization, and the garage-rockish “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” which (you may sense a pattern here) owed more to Paul Revere & the Raiders’ original version than the Monkees’ popularization.

Speaking of monkeys and covers: did his version of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” count as a cover?  Petty has done Traveling Wilburys songs in concert before, but only ones he originally sang on. “Tweeter” was the rare Wilburys tune to feature a solo lead vocal by Bob Dylan, so some assumed he might also be the sole or main author. But George Harrison once said that Petty was an equal partner in the writing, and he seems ready to claim co-ownership by featuring it on this tour. Truth be told, it’s not even one of the Wilburys’ most musically interesting moments, but Petty took its thin melodic frame and used it to hang an elegant, elongated arrangement that took it far away from the land of Jeff Lynne into the realm of atmospheric jam bands.

Although Petty’s recorded output has slowed down enough that he’ll never be accused of being the hardest working man in show business, he’s had a creative renaissance in recent years, first with the delightful Mudcrutch side project, which emphasized his California country-rock side, and then the Heartbreakers’ Mojo, which found the band favoring British blues-rock from around the same 1971 era. These two equally valid nostalgic directions were on view throughout the show, at least outside of the bookending hits.

Primarily acoustic mid-set numbers like “Rebels” and” “To Find a Friend” established that ex-Floridian Petty is non pareil at keeping the early ‘70s SoCal dream afloat when he wants to. Although he’s not one to gush about personal details, “Angel Dream (No. 2)” was preceded by a mention that this particular day marked “12 years of wedded bliss.” (One hopes the missus didn’t mind spending their anniversary in a garishly defaced movie palace filled with pot smoke.)

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Petty is uniquely positioned to age gracefully as a rock superstar, because he’s never been all that demonstrative or patronizingly effusive, so he’ll come off just as dignified doing this act at 70 as he was at 30. And if audiences never noticed that the star isn’t much for wearing his showmanship on his sleeve, it might be partly because the muscularity and versatility of the Heartbreakers renders the need for pandering moot.

The Heartbreakers -- the second most venerable mostly-intact great American rock band, after the E Street Band -- have two of popular music’s most notable instrumental MVPs, in the form of guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, both of whom got delicious showcase moments. Campbell’s came with Mojo’s album-closing “Good Enough,” one of the few times on record or live that he’s put his usual economy aside and really stretched out as the early-‘70s guitar hero he was born just a little too late to be. Tench, meanwhile, got to stretch his chops on an extended version of “Melinda,” which took time out for some serious minor-chord jazz piano vamping, accompanied only by Ron Blair’s modest bass and a few high-hat strikes from Steve Ferrone.

Introducing “Billy the Kid,” Petty said, “We never played anything from (1999’s) Echo very much. We spent a lot of time in the psychiatrist’s office wondering why we never played anything from Echo very much.” An odd joke, but one that maybe alludes to a time when the band was less healthy and vigorous than they are now. The Heartbreakers really should get busy and finish off that follow-up to 2010’s Mojo while they’re in fighting trim, though we might give them an indefinite pass on putting noses to the studio grandstone if they just wanted to come back and give us a few more Fonda five-nighters.

Set List:

So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
Love Is a Long Road
I Won’t Back Down
Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)
Cabin Down Below
Good Enough
(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone
A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)
Billy the Kid
Tweeter and the Monkey Man
To Find a Friend
Angel Dream (No. 2)
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream


You Wreck Me
American Girl

Twitter: @THRMusic