Photos (except where indicated) by Mark C. Austin
To be honest, since Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers walked off the Mitchell Pavilion stage shortly before 11 p.m. Friday night - or, more accurately, since the Arrow wrapped up its extended post-concert Petty block shortly before I got home around midnight - I haven't spent a whole lot of time reflecting on the show. I didn't need to. Instead, I've been letting it slowly seep into my subconscious, because as one of the most incredible big shows I've ever seen - up there with Depeche Mode, U2, Bruce Springsteen, the Stones, AC/DC and a few others - it's going to be with me for the rest of my life. But I suppose it's worth a few words.
Houston was lucky enough to catch Petty and the Heartbreakers on the final show of their three-month tour, which, as seasoned concertgoers know, means the band usually plays like it's got nothing to lose and leaves it all onstage. Friday was no different; it was all there from the portentous opening chords of 1994's "You Wreck Me" through the furious double-time climax of final encore "American Girl."
Every note, chord change and lyric felt perfect. With the exception of Full Moon Fever's "A Face in the Crowd" and the deep-blues workouts "Honeybee" and "Saving Grace," every song was an anthem, and the 20,000 or so faces in the crowd - the baby boomers in front of me, the family of four behind me, Cactus Music owner Quinn Bishop and wife Megan next to me ("our first night out since the baby [son Graham William Bishop, born August 8]"), Rocks Off's brother John and the thousands of people crammed onto the Pavilion's lawn - sang along vociferously.
Babysitter's delight: Quinn and Megan Bishop enjoy getting out of the house/ Photo by Chris Gray
Strolling the stage purposefully strumming his acoustic guitar, occasionally pirouetting when the moment struck him, Petty played the affable, laid-back ringmaster while his crack band hit all their marks behind him. Each Heartbreaker got his moment of face time: co-pilot Mike Campbell with finger-bending fretwork on "Breakdown" and "Runnin' Down a Dream"; keyboardist Benmont Tench with oceanic waves of B-3 ("I Won't Back Down," "Refugee") and Jerry Lee Lewis-like barrelhouse grand piano on "Saving Grace"; utility man Scott Thurston's forcful but forlorn harmonica intro to "Mary Jane's Last Dance"; and bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone loping through "Even the Losers" and plowing full steam ahead on the spectacular conclusion of "Don't Come Around Here No More."
Photo by Chris Gray
Many of Petty and the Heartbreakers' songs deal with unpleasant themes and emotions - displacement, alienation, desertion, rejection, anonymity - and even their happier momments contain a certain amount of ambiguity. The man "Runnin' Down a Dream" knows full well he may never catch up to it, and if the "Free Fallin'" narrator indeed "leaves this world for a while," will anyone miss him? Through it all, Petty's characters all maintain a dogged determination to "keep movin' on." Perhaps that's the very thing that has made so many of his songs so indelible down the years, but it was definitely one of the major reasons this last leg of the Heartbreakers' post-Super Bowl victory lap was so enjoyable.
Faced with the perhaps unenviable task of warming up the crowd - less than half of whom were in their seats when he went onstage - Steve Winwood delivered an hour-long set high in musicianship but somewhat lacking in energy. Hits like the Spencer Davis Group's Doobie-ish "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin'" felt oddly thin (especially Winwood's B-3 parts), while his 1987 solo hit "Higher Love" and a couple of selections from his new album Nine Lives were flat-out yawners.
Several songs featured extended jazz-flute solos (tasty!) that couldn't help but bring to mind Anchorman - a sentiment shared, much to our mutual amusement, by Mrs. Bishop. However, Winwood redeemed himself with his fuzzy, vaguely psychedelic guitar playing - he's every bit as talented a picker as organist - while a simmering version of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" deservedly drew the evening's first standing ovation, and "Dear Mr. Fantasy" was as exquisite a soul-blues rocker as they come. For better or worse, without Winwood there would be no Dave Matthews Band, nor any reason for the DMB to exist.
Or, to quote the night's headliner on "Refugee," it don't really matter to me, baby. You believe what you want to believe.
"Gloria" (Them cover)
"Breakdown" (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1976) "American Girl" (TPHB) "Listen To Her Heart" (You're Gonna Get It!, 1978) "Even the Losers" (Damn the Torpedoes, 1979) "Refugee" (DTT)
"Don't Come Around Here No More" (Southern Accents, 1985) "End of the Line" (Traveling Wilburys, vol. 1, 1988) "I Won't Back Down" (Full Moon Fever, 1989) "Free Fallin'" (FMF) "A Face in the Crowd" (FMF) Runnin' Down a Dream (FMF)
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"Learning to Fly" (Into the Great Wide Open, 1991) "Mary Jane's Last Dance" (Greatest Hits, 1993) "You Wreck Me" (Wildflowers, 1994) "Honeybee" (WF)
"Saving Grace" (Highway Companion, 2006) - Chris Gray