Last Night: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at Super Bowl XLII

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Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
University of Phoenix Stadium
February 3, 2008

Better Than: The game itself, except for that last Giants drive.

Download: Stream, actually, a sample of Tom Petty’s XM Radio show “Buried Treasure” here

For the past several weeks, I have had the distinct suspicion Tom Petty has been following me around. Not literally, of course – Petty and his trusty Heartbreakers won’t be in the Houston area until their August 29 concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion with Traffic jammer Steve Winwood – but I just can’t seem to shake this dude. Every time I turn on the radio, be it the surprisingly listenable local Jack outlet 103.7 FM or XM Radio’s Big Tracks channel (XM 49), lately the first thing I hear is always “Don’t Do Me Like That” or “Into the Great Wide Open.”

Going out is no escape, either. First it was Foo Fighters at Toyota Center – FF frontman Dave Grohl sat in with Petty and the Heartbreakers on their 1994 Saturday Night Live appearance and shows up alongside Eddie Vedder, Roger McGuinn and Stevie Nicks as one of the talking heads in Peter Bogdanovich’s comprehensive double-DVD documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream, now available at your friendly neighborhood Best Buy. RDAD comes complete with another full-length DVD of the Heartbreakers’ 30th anniversary homecoming concert in Gainesville, Florida, and bonus soundtrack CD that includes Grohl and the band grinding out the gritty blues “Honeybee” from Petty’s Wildflowers CD.

Anyway, at their recent sold-out Toyota date, the Foos encored with distinctly Petty-esque current single “Long Road to Ruin.” A couple of days before that, I happened across the King of the Hill episode where Drive-By Truckers, another one of my all-time favorite non-U2 bands, cover Petty’s Southern Accents gem “Rebels.” (Petty has a minor recurring role on KOTH as Luann Platter’s ne’er-do-well musician boyfriend Lucky.) Then Austin twangers Honeybrowne covered “Listen to Her Heart” at the most recent Houston Press concert series installment last week at Pub Fiction. And Bright Men of Learning frontman Ben Murphy, whose band’s MySpace page lists Petty as their primary influence alongside “tube amplification” and “fake beer,” performs tonight at Boondocks.

For all I know, this cross-disciplinary Petty campaign could be the covert work of Big Media – who we all know are in cahoots with each other anyway - to boost halftime viewership, though for the life of me I can’t imagine why that would be necessary. I suppose they may have been trying to prevent people from flipping over to some cable stunt like Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl,” but I don’t care how cute those dogs are, I’ll still take “Runnin’ Down a Dream” any day of the week. I heard the morning-show guys on SportsRadio 610 grousing they wished the NFL had booked someone a little more “current,” but Houstonians should know better than anyone else what happened the last time they tried that.

I prefer to think all this recent Petty activity is just one of the most underrated rock stars of the past 30 years finally getting his due. I know it’s strange to say that about a Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, 2002 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and classic-rock radio staple, but Petty’s name never seems to come up when the music punditry start drawing up their all-time best lists. If you don’t think Petty belongs on there, here’s a short list of songs he and the Heartbreakers didn’t perform last night: “Refugee,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Need to Know,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “You Wreck Me,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” See what I mean?

Maybe it’s the company he keeps: Petty can be directly linked to so many of rock’s biggest names – Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana and Johnny Cash, for starters – perhaps its inevitable he’s been a little obscured by such long shadows. No worries, though: I’m currently in the process of creating a Petty-based musical version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. That ought to help some. Stay tuned.

Of the songs they did play – “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” – given the astronomical level of hype and pageantry that surrounds the Super Bowl these days, it was downright refreshing to see a no-frills halftime show that let the music speak for itself. Perhaps it wasn’t quite as transcendent as Prince last year, but we were also spared the sight of Petty turning his guitar into a giant phallic symbol. As Petty and the Heartbreakers – co-pilot Mike Campbell was especially smokin’ on “Dream,” too – proved during their weather-interrupted headlining set at the 2006 Austin City Limits festival and again last night, their songs have become so ingrained in America’s collective unconscious they hardly need to sing them anymore because the crowd knows every word. The only thing I can’t figure out is why he didn’t call Phoenix native Stevie Nicks onstage for “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”

Tickets for Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Woodlands show are on sale now. See y’all there.

Personal Bias: If you would like to debate the merits of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ critically ravaged 2002 LP The Last DJ, please email me.

Random Detail: The Heartbreakers’ Woodlands show is the last date of their 2008 tour. Their ACL show was essentially a dress rehearsal for the Gainesville concert on Runnin’ Down a Dream.

By the Way: Petty’s “Buried Treasure” show runs all day Thursdays on XM Radio’s exclusive-content channel, XM 2 – Chris Gray

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