Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers barnstormed into Vancouver on this Saturday night, halfway into what he claims might be his final tour (surely, before the inevitable "comeback" tour, the "reunion" tour, the "sponsored by Depends" tour...). But for a 60-year-old, the eternally youthful Petty seemed plenty spry, although perhaps a step or two slower than the rock 'n' roll soldier of yore.
The show featured a generous helping of hits and not-too-many tunes from his new Highway Companion disc, performed on a state-of-the-art set that nonetheless didn't go overboard in detracting from the Heartbreakers' back-to-basics style. Lighted panels, suggesting a chandelier of piano keys, covered the lighting rig in swooping rows, suspended above a curved strip of screens behind the band displaying some of the most creative, effective videography I've seen at a shed show.
By far the night's most electrifying moment came about a third of the way in, with the surprise introduction of Stevie Nicks as special guest. Nicks participated in the tour's first several shows, but had been absent for over a month, so her appearance was an unexpected treat greeted with tsunami-like torrents of applause. It was an almost surreal experience watching the two Seventies veterans face off on "Stop Dragging My Heart Around," like a time-lapse from the tune's classic video to the present, Nicks a little larger and Petty a bit more grizzled. Still, when Nicks raised the hem of her skirt to the side and performed one of her trademark twirls, it was as though not a moment had passed. Nicks next took the lead on the early Heartbreakers rave-up "I Need to Know," then provided some backing vocals, and returned to center stage for a breathtaking version of "The Insider," reprising her duet with Petty from 1981's Hard Promises.
That last song followed one of the more moving new tunes Petty performed, "Square One," whose chorus -- "It took a world of trouble, it took a world of tears/ It took a long time to get back here" -- testifies to the personal challenges the songwriter's faced in recent years. The chorus of "The Insider" -- "I been burned by the fire/ And I've had to live with some hard promises/ I've crawled through the briars" -- echoed those sentiments with words composed 25 years earlier, underlining the heartbroken sensitivity that has always stood side-by-side with rock 'n' roll abandon in Petty's enduring appeal.
Petty's Heartbreakers, of course, spanned that divide with style and spirit befitting what is now one of the longest-lasting of all rock bands, led by stupendous guitarist Mike Campbell. Campbell, his trademark white-fro newly tamed into braids (whether for the purpose of hair extensions or not was unclear), has to be one of the most unsung (least sung?) rockers of the past three decades, cowriting the lion's share of Petty's hits and performing stunning feats on the guitar to define the Byrds/Stones synthesis at the heart of the Heartbreakers' sound. Keyboardist Benmont Tench, he of a thousand guest spots, was heard from surprisingly little, buried in the hazy mix and taking very few solos, which themselves seemed rather restrained. Original bassist Ron Blair, who left the group in the early '80s and only recently returned, seemed to know how lucky he was to jump back aboard this streamlined vehicle. And utility man (and former Stooge!) Scott Thurston, with the band for 15 years now, bolstered the instrumental landscape on guitars and keys and stepped into the spotlight for a note-perfect rendition of Roy Orbison's vocal on the Traveling Wilburys hit "Handle With Care," prompting an appreciative mid-song ovation from the crowd.
Following a setlist comprised largely of mid-tempo numbers and ballads, the Heartbreakers exploded into "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" before the encore, and when they came back out with "You Wreck Me," it seemed Petty was gunning for a thoroughly over-the-top finale. But after asking the crowd if they'd follow him wherever he wanted to go (to an enthusiastically affirmative response, go figure), he took the vibe way down, slipping into an improbable cover of Van Morrison's early Them classic "Mystic Eyes." Its Bo Diddley shuffle, bluesy harmonica (played by Thurston) and spooky guitar licks framed an at times almost whispered, erotically charged vocal from Petty, effectively conveying Morrison's first-ever joining of the spiritual and the sexual. It was a thrilling moment, even for those who couldn't place the relatively obscure song. "American Girl" followed as a stirring valediction, taking the crowd's energy back over the top once again.
About that sound mix, though -- it was mostly a mess, at least as heard in the 16th row, with individual instruments often indistinguishable (particularly dicey with a three-guitar lineup), and Petty's vocals largely indecipherable. His diction is muddy as a creek, and needs all the help it can get from a sound system, which it didn't receive tonight. While Nicks, whose voice sounded richer and fuller than ever, was able to penetrate the sonic haze with her more careful enunciation, their harmonies struggled to be heard. (But hey, everybody's had to fight to be free.)
The venue's parking setup ultimately proved equally impenetrable, its far-flung sections insufficiently labeled, leaving droves of concertgoers trekking across the gravel with a thousand-yard-stare in search of their vehicles and keeping hundreds of cars stuck in the lot more than 90 minutes after the show's end. It's going to take a heck of an act to lure me back out to the wilds of Clark County for a show. Fortunately, Petty and his Heartbreakers gave the audience plenty of memories to sustain them until the traffic cleared, and for a long time thereafter. I've always hesitated to admit Petty into the classic canon of his fellow Wilburys and their like, but seeing the young turk transformed gracefully into elder statesman while still kicking ass, I just have to hand it to him -- he and his band are simply among the greatest the rock era has produced.
Setlist (from gonegator.com):
LISTEN TO HER HEART
YOU DON'T KNOW HOW IT FEELS
I WON'T BACK DOWN
I'M A MAN
HANDLE WITH CARE
Band Intro & Stevie Nicks Intro
STOP DRAGGIN' MY HEART AROUND
I NEED TO KNOW
LEARNING TO FLY
DON'T COME AROUND HERE NO MORE
RUNNIN' DOWN A DREAM
YOU WRECK ME