Thursday, May 3, 2012

Petty

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers--"Time To Move On" (mp3)
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers--"Free Girl Now" (mp3)

 People have bucket lists these days; I don't.  But I have wanted to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for a long time, and my recent trip to Jazzfest in New Orleans afforded me the opportunity.  I was ecstatic.
Let's face it: rock and roll is winding down.  Modern music is moving in different directions--from rap to reverb, from hip-hop to hootenanny.  People don't even know what rock is these days.  They think that manufactured beats or singalongs or fast strumming constitutes rock.  No, rock has always been the rhythm of guitars, the beat of drums, maybe with an occasional keyboard thrown in.   Bands who made their names on those basic rhythms and instruments and themes of rock have had a hard time sustaining that ethic with the various social onslaughts of the 80's, 90's and now the new century. Petty may, just may, be the last true rocker who has never let that flame go out. 

He and his band, The Heartbreakers, who have been around since 1976, have continued down the rock road for the last 36 years, rarely straying from a basic line-up of 2 guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums. The current line-up that I saw in New Orleans had six members, four of whom are original members.   Serving the dual influences of dirty Southern blues and the California folkrock sensibilities of The Byrds, Petty and his band have continued to nurture that Romanticism with a hard-rocking edge.

The show I saw was no different.  I have had to experience the Heartbreakers on a turntable, tape player, and CD player for all those years, getting glimpses of their live presence on Pack Up The Plantation! and The Live Anthology and the Super Bowl and the stray concert cut that has come my way.  But, still, that has not been yeoman's work.  Petty's catalog of 15 studio albums (plus two with the Traveling Wilburys) over the years has yielded a largely-consistent playlist of quality rock, arguably a radio playlist of some of the best songs of the genre. 

And his recent offerings--the superb, underrated Highway Companion, the back-to-his-roots Mudcrutch, and the recent blues-based Mojo are, again, the standard for rockers his age in terms of quality.  Even Petty's occasional missteps (much of conceptual The Last DJ and some of the over-Jeff-Lynne-produced Into The Great Wide Open) have still yielded numerous classic songs, as well as fodder for discussion about his experimentation.  I don't like Jeff Lynne's production; many people do.

It is difficult, nay impossible, to name a rocker who has stayed on top of his game with the same consistency since the mid 70's.  Maybe some have switched to other genres successfully, some have started and stopped and restarted, but none, as rockers, have kept that original vision going.  For Petty, I think this must have been easier than most because of the core of his band, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell.  These men have participated in hundreds of rock songs with their adaptable playing (think Henley's "Boys Of Summer" for Campbell).  Mike Campbell, to these ears, is the most versatile lead player in any rock band going.  He could fill in for Gram Parson's band as easily as he could fill in for Led Zeppelin.

All of this was evident in Petty's Jazzfest show.  A tight, crisp, sharp 21-song rocking show that displayed both the band's vulnerability and its ability to exploit electric guitars to their full potential, the show defied age and time with punchy performances that showed us that Petty and his band have not lost a step.  Most bands now play their signature songs slower than they were recorded.  Not Petty.  And play some hits?  Yeah, because that's what some people go to concerts for, but Petty also went for the "deep cuts" and his favorites off his most recent CD, Mojo.  He knew those might be a tough sell, but he also knew that he could sell them.  His brief, wise, ironic acoustic set ("Time To Move On," "Learning To Fly," and "Yer So Bad") not only gave hardcore fans like me some underappreciated favorites, but he also performed those songs in new settings.

From the opening punches of "Listen To Her Heart" and "You Wreck Me" to the closing quartet of "Refugee," "Runnin' Down A Dream," "Last Dance With Mary Jane" and "American Girl," Petty and the Heartbreakers reminded us of two things:  1) that rock and roll is about boys and girls, men and women, lovers of any persuasion, and 2) that rock and roll is dangerous. 

Ultimately, rock is not about politics or positions, causes or choreographed catharses.  It's about love or the failure of love or the complications of relationships.  It's about growing up and trying to fit in and making sense of adult choices.  Nothing else.  If rock is cathartic, that response is something that comes naturally from our having experienced the same emotions.

And rock is dangerous because emotions are dangerous, volatile, unpredicable.  When Petty sings in "Last Dance With Mary Jane" that "there's pigeons down in Market Square/ she's standing in her underwear," when he speculates in "Refugee" that "somewhere, some way, somebody musta kicked you around some," when he postures on "Listen To Her Heart" that "you think you're gonna take her away/ With your money and your cocaine,"  we know that we have entered a world where things have gotten skewed, where lives are at risk, and where real showdowns will have to take place.

Bruce Springsteen once captured rock and roll's essence in a single sentence: "Maybe we could cut some place of our own with these drums and these guitars."  The tentative dream of kids-trying-to-matter in that lyric is key, as is the starkness of trying to make a fresh sound with those few instruments.  Both aspects were evident in Petty's show top to bottom.  He doesn't seem to have strayed far from that original vision--a group of Gainesville, Florida high school dropouts who gave it their all all those years ago and who never stopped giving and who seem to remain, 36 years later, still in awe of the fact that it actually happened, genuinely excited to perform before a huge crowd.  And, yes, they did deliver. There are other bands out there with other goals.  There are big reunions, unimaginable reunions, coming up, both cash ins and anniversaries.  Classic bands on Broadway even.  But for the sheer power of rock and roll over the last five decades, give me Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.  Twenty years ago, I might not have thought I'd be saying that, but I'm saying it now.  They're the ones who have stuck with it.  The only ones, as far as I can tell.  And the ones who make it matter.

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