Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Mighty as Ever at Tour Kickoff: Concert Review

Tom Petty live 2014 P
Ben Wener
Old dogs still have new tricks up their sonic sleeves, along with can't-miss hits.

Tom Petty and his trusty Heartbreakers, one of the greatest live bands of the past few decades, need not have released a new album this summer in order to embark on an instantly sold-out nationwide tour, which launched Sunday night in San Diego and wraps in October with their first appearance in many years at the Fabulous Forum. In terms of sheer rock 'n' roll force, this bunch ranks very closely behind only Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and maybe the Rolling Stones on a particularly hot night, and as with those fellow Hall of Famers, all anyone asks of them is to bash through classic after classic at full velocity for a couple hours before closing, as always, with another spirited Rickenbacker rip through "American Girl."

That's precisely what they've done on previous outings, to predictably rousing and thoroughly satisfying effect. But this time Petty and his aces — lifelong collaborators Mike Campbell (guitars) and Benmont Tench (keyboards), original Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair, dexterous drummer Steve Ferrone and essential utility player Scott Thurston — are packing something fresh: Hypnotic Eye, their first effort in four years and the strongest addition to a largely indispensable catalog in at least three times as long.

Sociopolitically trenchant like The Last DJ a dozen years ago but consistently fiercer, it's a remarkably reinvigorating record, with an immediacy that belies its lengthy gestation; it sounds like they cut it in two weeks. More even than 2010's back-to-basics blues-rock foray Mojo, or the revival of formative country-rock outfit Mudcrutch two years before that, this latest salvo vividly evokes the raw intensity of the group's earliest works. Across 11 winners they pile on Cream-y psychedelia, fuzzed-up garage-rock joy, homages to roots heroes and occasional jazzy detours while also deepening both lyrics and grooves with received wisdom that only comes once a band has seen and done it all. "Take what you can, all you can carry," Petty sings at one point, "take what you can and leave the past behind."

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Sound advice, though of course he and the Heartbreakers would never fully ditch their glory days while on the road. Sure enough, Sunday's 20-song set at Viejas Arena, bolstered by an ecstatic crowd that sang even louder than they cheered, came bookended by staples: their rollicking cover of the Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" and another wickedly stomping rendition of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" to start, with roaring takes on "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" saved as closers, along with an encore that sprinted out of the blocks via a jolting "You Wreck Me."

Yet, apart from expected anthems that punctuated the middle of the show – none heartier than a back-to-back pairing of Full Moon Fever's mainstays, "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'" — what filled the in-between was a deliberately mixed bag of dusted-off tracks, choice new ones and a complementary cover of Little Feat's "Willin'." (That last one was as stately as Dylan and the Band doing "I Shall Be Released" and heightened by a gorgeous, Duane Allman-esque solo from Campbell.)

Maybe it wasn't the hits-stuffed rundown that hard-boozin' party people would have preferred, but for longtime Heartbreakers admirers, those who value less-revered tunes as much as what the band has to offer now, it was a riveting stretch, riddled with surprises. The first stunner: "Into the Great Wide Open," slightly slower than the recorded version but more glorious because of it, with Petty providing 12-string strumming and Tench adding high-keys filigree. Equally rich was a subdued, mostly acoustic segment, led by the hey-hey-hey's of "Rebels," made lovelier by the Wildflowers gem "To Find a Friend" (sounding like a lost Simon & Garfunkel outtake) and capped by a heavenly "Learning to Fly." By the end of that bit, its author was floating on a sea of supporting voices, the audience loudly but tenderly singing the chorus repeatedly.

Through it all, Petty was as jovial as he was serious, playfully bantering whenever he wasn't simply bowled over by the deafening response. "This is an old song, comes from 1985," he said ahead of the brushed-up "Rebels." "That was a great year, huh, '85? Really, all of the '80s didn't suck. I remember things well: You had the big wide shoulders ... cocaine ... hair gel ... mousse, it was called mousse."

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That got some laughs and whistling, but it didn't deter from the stark honesty of the piece: "One foot in the grave, one foot on the pedal" was how he characterized himself (and others) back then. Now, however, an amiable, bearded sage at 63, Petty has become one of rock's great observers, recapitulating that do-or-die mentality in songs that read far less as autobiography than relevant commentary.

Just as it launches Hypnotic Eye with a grungy wallop, "American Dream Plan B," its down-but-not-beaten protagonist vowing to "fight till I get it right," was the first of four new ones this night to prove that point, with exclamations provided by more searing fretwork from Campbell. That was followed not long after by the souped-up Bo Diddley intro and reverb-heavy rockin' of "Forgotten Man," in which a drawling Petty "feels like a four-letter word" and recalls "how angry words can pierce the heart, how a soul can sink so low." Yet, this still being the same guy who decades ago declared that "even the losers get lucky sometimes," silver linings abound, with the lusty blast "U Get Me High" arriving late in the set, as it does on the album, to remind of life's happier aspects.

Stauncher acolytes might have preferred more of that material, like the steamy, seven-minute "Shadow People," a "scary as hell" cautionary tale of guns and apocalyptic war that, in its live debut here, found a finger-wagging Petty laying bare his politics: "I ain't on the left and I ain't on the right / I ain't even sure I got a dog in this fight." In San Diego, that piece was expanded to epic proportions, with first Campbell (on his Flying V) and then Petty adding scorching solos. But given that it culminated a lengthy portion of slower ones and then dovetailed into the heady Led Zep crush of "I Should Have Known It," surely some fans had grown antsy to return to greatest-hits terrain.

It's to the Heartbreakers' credit, though, that they continue to do just as they please — and appear to have a total blast in the process. Perhaps more old favorites will creep into the rundown, or maybe more new stuff will be turned into centerpieces. Which way the balance of neglected nuggets and bona fide smashes will tilt on coming dates ultimately doesn't matter: Petty and his mates remain magnificently mighty through and through.

Fellow legend Steve Winwood (see photo at bottom), with whom these headliners have toured before, opened with a taut and lively hour-long turn that was nearly a carbon copy of the too-brief set he delivered at the Pantages in June. Framing his time with fundamental '60s groovers, "I'm a Man" to begin and "Gimme Some Lovin'" to finish, he managed to squeeze in a good share of staples, from a fleshed-out take on Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" (somewhat yelped at first) and a smattering of Traffic jams ("Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy" were dynamic highlights) to a robust, Calypso-inflected version of "Higher Love." The fun of that rearrangement is reason enough to arrive early.

Set List:

So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star (Byrds cover)
Mary Jane's Last Dance
American Dream Plan B
Into the Great Wide Open
Forgotten Man
I Won't Back Down
Free Fallin'
Tweeter and the Monkey Man (Traveling Wilburys song)
U Get Me High
To Find a Friend
Willin' (Little Feat cover)
Learning to Fly
Shadow People
I Should Have Known It
Runnin' Down a Dream


You Wreck Me
American Girl