Tom Petty has hinted that he’s approaching the end of his storied career, and that his current 40th Anniversary Tour may be his last major outing.
At 66, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and sometime-Traveling Wilbury has done it all and has nothing left to prove. His last studio effort, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, would make a fine career-capper. Making another record is just a question of what he feels he has left to say.
The man will never have to live like a refugee, to drop a bad Petty pun.
If the crowd reaction to Saturday’s spectacular Heartbreakers concert at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena is any barometer, Petty’s perfectly welcome to come around here some more.
Petty—dressed in grey jacket, black vest and dark brown shades—literally started the June 10 gig at the beginning—with the opening song (the ruckus “Rockin’ Around With You”)—from The Heartbreakers’ 1976 eponymous debut. Then he, Mike Campbell (lead guitar), and the rest of the Gainesville, Florida-grown gang devoted the next two hours to familiar hits (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels”) and jam-friendly album cuts (“It’s Good to Be King”) from throughout their considerable catalog (Heartbreakers and solo Petty).
Petty’s always been equal parts Buffalo Springfield and Bruce Springsteen, judiciously blending jangly electric and acoustic guitar chords with irrepressible rhythms and poignant verses (peppered with dashes of Sex Pistols and Clash punk). That panache was on full display on the Cavaliers’ home court (just 24 hours after the basketball team’s remarkable Game 4 Finals win over the Golden State Warriors) with Petty and Campbell trading barbed riffs, slinky slide solos, Fender Stratocaster finishes on “Forgotten Man” (from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye), “You Got Lucky” (from 1982’s Long After Dark), and the ever-relevant “I Won’t Back Down” (from 1989’s Full Moon Fever).
Another Full Moon Fever gem—“Freefalling”—made for a killer singalong. “Walls” (from the soundtrack to the 1996 Edward Burns film She’s the One) was more introspective. Southern Accents hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was accompanied by big-screen kaleidoscope and checkerboard graphics that recalled the 1985 song’s trippy Alice in Wonderland-inspired video.
A mid-set Wildflowers medley saw Petty, Campbell and company stretch out on “It’s Good to Be King,” “Crawling Back to You,” and the 1994 album’s wistful, acoustic-powered title track. “Learning to Fly” (from 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open) was similarly stripped-down, but drummer Steve Ferrone (ex-Average White Band, Stevie Nicks) and bassist Ron Blair added a little oomph near the end.
Petty jokingly described Ferrone as the new guy: “He’s only been with us for twenty-four years!” The bandleader also rightfully praised The Heartbreakers’ longstanding synth / piano player Benmont Tench as one of pop’s best keyboardists, and placed old pal Blair among rock’s most reliable bassists.
Tom’s introduction of high school friend Campbell was more personal…and amusing. His story about meeting his future lead guitarist and best bud (who owned a cheap Japanese guitar at the time) occasioned the night’s biggest laughs.
“I drove over to his house, but I wasn’t sure if I should get out of the car,” said Petty. “It was a shaky looking place!”
“Then he tore into ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and I thought, ‘Wow! You’re gonna be in my band forever!’”
It hasn’t been quite that long yet, but it’s been ages since Campbell and Petty haven’t had direct access to state-of-the-art studios and custom-made instruments bearing their names. And while the bearded, pseudo-dreadlocked Campbell didn’t smile as much as his cohorts, his chops (on the frets of various Gretsch and Dean guitars) were immaculate.
Singing sisters Charley and Hattie Webb (both blonde and resplendent in black) provided background vocals, flushing out the upper registers of many recognizable Heartbreakers refrains. The siblings’ synchronized moves were also a nice visual reminder of just how soulful and danceable some of these songs are.
Not that a majority of the arena audience wasn’t already up and moving in the aisles.
“Yer So Bad” featured a multimedia video whose animated characters lived out the tune’s up-down romance. A bank of illuminated bulbs (four blocks of ‘em, lined 8 x 5) ascended and descended—sometimes en masse, sometimes individually—over Petty and band, changing colors to complement the musical moods. Flickering lime green to mango orange, the engaging orbs looked like upside-down balloons that glowed from within.
In addition to the dazzling scoreboard-sized backdrop, the stage boasted four overhead screens (two up front and one on each side) so that even the high-altitude ticket-holders could feast their eyes on something.
Damn the Torpedoes smash “Refugee” brought another helping of guitar acrobatics and keyboard calisthenics. “Running Down a Dream” was an upbeat finale, and “You Wreck Me” was an inspired, didn’t-see-that-coming encore.
The Heartbreakers brought the party full circle by ending where they started (both the show and their professional lives): “American Girl” debuted in ’76, but the song is one of those rare rockers that never gathers moss or collects dust.
Joe Walsh opened the show at 8:00pm with an hour of gritty guitar mayhem that drew from his 1970’s work with The James Gang, Barnstorm…and The Eagles.
The 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (and former Kent State student) served up a muscular mix for a 69-year old, starting with “Meadows” (from 1973’s The Smoker You Are, The Player You Get)” and “Mother Says” (from 1972’s Barnstorm). “Ordinary Average Guy” was the first of two songs chronicling the two sides of Walsh’s day-in-the-life coin, with rock star cartoon “Life’s Been Good” offering the funny flipside of Walsh’s regular Joe anthem.
“Good morning!” greeted Walsh, who sported a blue Cavs jersey. “It’s good to be home!”
James Gang medley “The Bomber / Closet Queen / Cast Your Fate to the Wind” included a snippet of Ravel’s “Bolero,” just like on record (1970’s James Gang Rides Again). “Turn to Stone” was dark ‘n’ dirty as ever, and “Funk #49” retained its freneticism and forcefulness. The Warriors movie hit “In the City” was an excellent choice for a town that counts Walsh among its favorite sons (yes, Michael Stanley was in attendance).
Walsh’s trademark humor was in evidence, too: The Drew Carey Show guest star apologized to millennials whose parents subjected them to his music. Later, he encouraged fans to add oomphs and uhhns to his lyrics.
“Now you’ll be able to drive home and think to yourself, ‘I accomplished something today!’” he quipped.
The music was also punctuated with funny sound effects, like tumbling bowling pins and a pinging doorbell. And that line about fans writing letters in “Life’s Been Good” has been updated to fans writing e-mails telling him he’s great.
A coterie of backup singers assisted on Walsh’s moving tribute to the late Glenn Frey, whom Joe described as a “brother and soulmate.” The Eagles' “Take It to the Limit” (from their 1975 LP One of These Nights) was given a respectful, sincere reading—and even Joe’s signature rasp was good enough to trigger the waterworks.
We didn’t catch the names of everyone in Joe’s current band, but that was Ohio native Tom Bukovac swapping scorching licks with Walsh. And Joe Vitale was one of three drummers supporting Joe: The Barnstorm alumnus bashed beats lockstep with Chad Cromwell for most of the set, but James Gang founder Jimmy Fox guested (along with bassist Dale Peters) on fiery “Funk #49.”
Swampy, sleazy “Rocky Mountain Way” was a great way—the only way—for Walsh to go out.
The self-described Analog Man and Ringo Starr sitter-inner will rejoin surviving Eagles Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmidt (and new members Deacon Frey and Vince Gill) next month for a pair of weekend-long package shows featuring those “Hotel California” heroes and fellow coastal rockers Fleetwood Mac, Doobie Brothers, and Journey at Dodger Stadium (“Classic West”) in L.A. on July 15-16 and Citi Field (“Classic East”) in N.Y.C. on July 29-30.