He doesn’t have a new album to promote. He didn’t even bring any whiz-bang production with some awesome lighting and way-cool video. He didn’t even bring a particularly well-known opening act (remember the Smithereens?).
However, on Saturday night at jam-packed Target Center in Minneapolis, Tom Petty proved why, 37 years after releasing his debut album, he is still one of rock’s most exciting statues in concert.
How does he pull it off? Let me count the ways.
1. Yes, Petty barely moves onstage. OK, a little strolling around, a hand gesture here or there and tambourine on one song, but no dancing, intense body language or rock-star poses. There’s just one Tom Petty move: Sometimes, at song’s end, he stretches his arms wide, like Neil Diamond, with his eyes closed and the most satisfying smile on his face.
2. Petty sings with passion but never gets lost in his music, never breaks a sweat, never goes over the top. (The snarling “Refugee” was the only time he raised his voice.) Laid back is his style. It suits him and his music. He opted to take some songs in lower keys on Saturday but, for instance, on “Free Fallin’,” many of the 14,000 fans provided the high harmonies on what turned into a giant singalong.
3. The Heartbreakers are one of the best of the enduring bands in rock. Tight, forceful, spirited. There’s a good reason they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Petty. Driving drummer Steve Ferrone, who joined in 1994, is machine precise. Benmont Tench provides all those keyboard fills and filigree. And Mike Campbell’s guitar defines every song.
4. Campbell, he of the black dreadlocks, is a guitarist of many voices, moods and styles — whether it was the stinging slide Saturday on “I Won’t Back Down,” the blistering explosions on “Love Is a Long Road,” the soaring trippiness on “A Woman in Love,” the gentle moaning on “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” the heavy bent blues on “I Should Have Known It” or the intense exchange with Petty’s guitar on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Campbell elevates Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to greatness.
5. Petty does covers that salute his influences. On Saturday, he opened with the Byrds’ “So You Want To Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” and also did the blues chestnut “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” even adding an amusing talking portion (about his bipolar gal) that wasn’t in Big Joe Williams’ original.
6. Petty doesn’t re-imagine his old hits the way Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young do. Petty is predictable — tried and true.
7. With no new album, this could have turned into a two-hour greatest-hits show. That’s not for Petty, who played plenty of hits but threw in some deep album cuts, including “Cabin Down Below” from his “Wildflowers” solo disc, an acoustic “Rebels” from “Southern Accents” and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” from his Traveling Wilburys repertoire. (Petty’s phrasing and nasally voice sounded positively Dylanesque on this tune, which he cowrote with Dylan.)
8. Although he’s used state-of-the-art video cubes and special effects on previous tours, Petty used only a little stage fog and a red ruffled backdrop curtain on Saturday. Fans could summon their own visual extras from the many artful videos that Petty has made over the years. To be honest, it wasn’t practical for him to work with elaborate stage production on this limited 12-city U.S. summer tour, which included multi-night theater runs in New York City and Los Angeles, such major festivals as Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Summerfest in Milwaukee, and just a couple of arenas.