Summer is a time for concerts, and a time to find the coolest new thing on a hot night. But Summer 2006 would not be complete without some tried and true tunes that stand the test of time—as well as the heat, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers did not fail to please St. Louis at the UMB Bank Pavilion this June.
Opening for Petty was jam band guru, Trey Anastasio, doing his Grateful Dead vibe for all the kids dancing on the hill in Indian skirts and hemp shirts. A band with skilful musicianship, they don’t play actual songs as much as meandering space-outs. We’d forgotten they were on even before they finished playing.
Just before we were lulled into the next trip, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (all original lineup) took the stage with “Listen to Your Heart” and reminded us of who wears the crown for pop music today. Piano keys decorated the stage set and an impressive (and no doubt, expensive) use of projection screens across the upper portion of the amphitheater stage made the best of every face, every angle and every great rock and roll moment.
Tom Petty, now 55, hasn’t changed much in his appearance from when he first broke into music back in the 80s. With his thin, long blond hair, his gangly appearance, awkward smile and fringy leather jacket, he’s never been a looker—and that somehow gives him a coolness and charm too many pretty boys lack. After “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and so many others, one forgets what an institution the guy has become.
Leading his team of Heartbreakers, Tom Petty did funny little dances and seemed genuinely touched by the crowd’s singing along with every tune. “Yeah, ya sound really good,” he said in his characteristic drawl. “Yer whatcha call the proverbial rowdy rock crowd, aren’t ya?”
Petty tucked in a few new songs from his first new CD in four years, Highway Companion, which didn’t detract from the great vibe of familiarity he had going with the crowd. “Saving Grace” sounded spooky cool and rocked harder than a lot of his better known pop songs. Returning to the classics, he and the band delivered a new arrangement of “Last Dance for Mary Jane” that kicked ass. Ever since the 80s, Heartbreaker guitarist extraordinaire, Mike Campbell, (“the co-captain,” as Petty dubbed him) has always managed to play a flawless show while looking completely bored. A groupie could give this guy a blowjob while he’s playing on stage and his expression wouldn’t change a bit.
“You know, we’ve had our band together quite a while, celebrating our thirtieth year,” Tom said. “A lot of the music that turned us on in the 60s came from England.” He went on to explain that the Muddy Waters track made famous by the Yardbirds “came back to us,” and launched into the classic, “I’m a Man.”
Petty’s fringy jacket eventually dropped off to reveal a leather vest with brown and black crosses. The maracas came out next and the audience loved it when Petty sang the line, “you know I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin,” from the Traveling Wilburys’ song, “Handle Me With Care.” Scott Thurston, who, as background vocalist, keyboard, guitar and harmonica, could be considered the Heartbreakers MVP, filled in nicely on the Roy Orbison parts—no easy feat. Additionally, Petty couldn’t have said it better when he thanked their own “private locomotive on drums,” Steve Feronne.
Musing on years of shared apartments, shared girlfriends and shared weed, Petty smiled and waved, “no, not any more!” laughing. After the band introductions, Petty gave the introduction so many had been waiting for: “and every family’s got a little sister,” he said, bringing the infamous Stevie Nicks onto the stage. Still wearing her long blonde waves and gypsy clothes of yesteryear, Nicks looked and sounded good as she went into her Top Ten hit and duo with Petty, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” It was a magic moment and a one-of-a-kind show that will likely never tour St. Louis (or anywhere) again.
A disappointment perhaps only to this writer was Nicks’ interpretation of the old Heartbreakers hit (maybe their first hit?), “I Need To Know.” It’s not that Stevie Nicks did anything wrong at all. It’s just that Tom Petty’s delivery is so f-in’ cool, and why tamper with greatness?
During the melancholy beautiful “Crawling Back to You,” what started as a beautiful light show became jaw-dropping gorgeous.
“Stevie once asked me to write a song for her,” Tom said, introducing the next one. “I said, ‘no.’ I didn’t know if I could do it. But it turned out to be one of my favorite songs.” They then sang a gorgeous rendition of “Insider” together, accompanied by Mike Campbell on mandolin. “Learning to Fly” began as an acoustic solo by Petty, but soon included Stevie Nicks on backing vocals. It was a little dreamier, slower version of the familiar Full Moon Fever track, but wonderful nonetheless. She joined him again, of course, for her other famous hit with Petty, “Don’t Come ‘Round Here No More.”
Petty, who played at least eight different guitars during the show, milked the audience hysteria on high points such as “Refugee,” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” There was a very long wait for an encore and UMB was about to riot before the band returned with “You Wreck Me,” followed by an elaborate bluesy-evangelist adlib about how good the crowd made him feel before burning into an amazing cover of Van Morrison’s “Mystic Eyes.”
“I wanna make the loudest noise ever made in this building, people!” Petty yelled, and the audience responded in turn. The band finished with “American Girl,” and the audience, breathless, exhausted and full to the brim of happiness, nodded to the band logo for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that silently dominated the screen as the band exited.
This summer, we got our money’s worth. And then some.