Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers @ Beacon Theatre – May 22
Words: Scott Bernstein
Photos: Chad Anderson
Like a fine wine, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers seem to get better with age. The legendary rockers are in the midst of a 21-show tour that includes arena dates, visits to sheds, festival appearances and most notably a pair of residencies at intimate venues. The first of these residencies is currently taking place at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, where the band played their second of five shows at the Manhattan venue last night and kept the crowd hanging on every note thanks to a full-bodied mix of potent rockers, gorgeous originals and even a few fun covers.
[All Photos by Chad Anderson]
Tuesday night’s show kicked off the way all four shows on the tour have started – with a deliciously jangle-fueled cover of So You Want To Be A Rock And Roll Star by The Byrds. While Petty deserves all the accolades he’s gotten over the years as the group’s front man and songwriter, from the first note it was clear just how much The Heartbreakers mean to his music. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell is one of the best in the biz and delivered one jaw-dropping lick after another all night. Keyboardist Benmont Tench is an extremely versatile player who adds impressive layers to each tune, while never stepping on his band mates’ toes. Drummer Steve Ferrone pounded the skins so hard that he nearly collapsed at the end of the group’s 19-song main set. Ron Blair steadies the band as an incredibly capable bassist, while Scott Thurston is the Heartbreakers’ Jose Oquendo – a multi-instrumental “utility player” who fills in wherever needed depending on the song.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Friend Of The Devil
After finishing the Full Moon Fever track Love Is A Long Road, Tom Petty stepped to the mic and was met by a roar from the crowd. The roar only gained in strength when the Gainesville, Florida native announced, “Was anyone here last night? Well, we’re playing a completely different show filled with deeper tracks.” It seems most fans were clued in on the mission behind the residency, which was to show the depth of Petty’s repertoire that goes so far beyond the hits that continue to be classic rock radio staples. If there were attendees upset that songs like Free Fallin’, I Won’t Back Down and Breakdown weren’t performed, they kept quiet about it. These residencies are for the hard-cores and for fans who could appreciate the band’s stellar catalog. However, after making the “deeper tracks” announcement, Petty said they’d play one everyone knew before “embarking on tonight’s adventure” and lit into Here Comes My Girl.
To start the evening’s adventurous portion, Tom and the Heartbreakers performed the outstanding You’re Gonna Get It! cut When The Time Comes. Though Petty announced they last played the song in 1978 after it was finished, he was wrong. Turns out The Heartbreakers last rocked When The Time Comes on January 27th, 1980 – a whopping 33 years ago. Now THAT’S a bust out. Speaking of bust outs, next up was a cover of the iconic Booker T. and the MG’s instrumental Green Onions which turned the spotlight on Tench. Green Onions was a fairly regular part of Petty’s live sets from ’97 – ’01. After that he only played it once in 2011 before filling the Beacon with the organ-based romp last night. Tom has a huge repertoire, so he can be excused from not remembering some facts. For instance, before he started The Best Of Everything, Petty was stuck trying to remember what album it was from before someone offstage yelled to him “Southern Accents!” Though it was a tour debut, The Best Of Everything was performed flawlessly. There’s no doubt this band spent lots of time woodshedding before taking the show on the road.
The “deep tracks” kept coming at a quick pace with little fanfare between them. Past Beacon shows from a variety of bands have found audience members who yell at those who have the audacity to stand or god forbid dance. On this night you could hear a pin drop during the quiet moments and could witness audience members going berserk during the more energetic numbers. Towards the front of the orchestra, most of the crowd was on its feet all night long and the bathrooms were mainly empty as many didn’t want to miss a minute of this show – again, quite shocking considering how few “hits” were played.
Album cuts weren’t only kept to Petty’s older LPs, he also treated fans to the year’s first (and only the third since 2002) When A Kid Goes Bad off 2002’s The Last DJ and the tour debut of Saving Grace off 2006’s Highway Companion. From there, The Heartbreakers showed off their improvisational prowess during The Traveling Wilburys’ Tweeter And The Monkey Man. After delivering the New Jersey-referencing lyrics, the ensemble embarked on a twisted, psychedelic swamp-rock jam that featured awe-inspiring work between Tench and Campbell as they finished each others’ musical statements in the way that only bandmates of 36 years can. While far from a jamband, The Heartbreakers are quite capable of jamming.
Of all the rarities, Southern Accents track Rebels garnered the best response from the audience. Men and women of every age sang along in a way that made it seem like Petty and the Heartbreakers succeeded in filling the crowd with diehard fans. Up next was a string in which three of four songs were off of Petty’s outstanding Wildflowers album including the LP’s beautiful title track – trotted out for its tour debut. While Wildflowers was a solo album, its tunes gain enormously in concert from the contributions of The Heartbreakers. Besides the title track, that also went for Crawling Back To You and a show-stopping take on It’s Good To Be King which were both included in last night’s set. The latter featured another killer jam and showed off the understated light and set design employed for these intimate shows.
In between the Wildflowers songs was one of the finest moments of an evening filled with them – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ cover of Friend Of The Devil by the Grateful Dead. Petty and his band first performed the Dead tune back at their Fillmore Residency in 1997 and dusted it off for this tour, with the bust out coming this past Saturday night at the Hangout Fest. Tom strode to the mic with harmonica in hand for an extended intro that saw the murmurs from the crowd increase in volume as fans started to recognize the song. The best covers aren’t straight-up imitations and The Heartbreakers add tons of their own flair to their take on FOTD. Particularly impressive were Mike Campbell’s licks which used Jerry Garcia’s work as a roadmap but not as a stencil. Campbell bent each note in a way Jerry would’ve approved of during a gorgeous solo that followed another outstanding organ solo from Benmont Tench.
For the finale of the main set, Petty and the Heartbreakers gave us a two-pronged assault of hits in Refugee and Runnin’ Down A Dream. Both gave the crowd another chance to get their ya ya’s out and the parade of Petty’s best-known songs continued into the encore with another burst of jangle in Listen To Her Heart and the group’s trademark ditty American Girl. American Girl was a fine cap to the evening and one of the few songs that Tom Petty MUST play each night. Watching The Heartbreakers work through their first hit is a right of passage for music fans as it’s quintessential rock and roll.
For the past few decades this band has toured sporadically and at most shows they played a heaping dose of hits mixed with tunes from their latest album. Petty and his band’s 2013 excursion gives them a chance to explore the forgotten side of their legendary output and those who get to see it are in for a special experience. At 62 Tom Petty is getting up there in age, but last night he played with the energy of a man half his age. That said, he won’t tour forever so if you get a chance to see him, jump on it.
Here Comes My Girl
Listen To Her Heart