"Nothing scares corporate radio more than public radio," Tom Petty declared last night with a wicked grin, as he faced an intimate crowd of just 500 in a benefit concert for the tiny college radio station KCSN-FM, on the outer edges of suburban Los Angeles. "We think people can understand a lot of different kinds of music."
Petty and the Heartbreakers headlined the first of two nights at the Plaza del Sol Performance Hall on the campus of Cal State Northridge, not only raising funds for the public-supported station but making a stand for a sound and a way of life. Petty openly lamented the rise of pop music "game-shows" and the ongoing decline of freeform radio on commercial airwaves, which his own success depended on in the early days.
"People took a chance on our band. Tell you what – we would not win American Idol," said Petty, who since 2005 has hosted a weekly radio show on Sirius XM, Tom Petty's Buried Treasure. He also noted the irony ofthis week's abrupt firing of local KLOS-FM DJ Jim Ladd, the inspiration for Petty's "The Last DJ" (lyric: "He won't play what they say to play . . . There goes the last human voice"). The band soon shifted into "I Won't Back Down," providing a defiant theme for the night, which also included a smoky set from Jakob Dylan and spirited folk-rock by singer-songwriter Lissie.
Like any great DJ, Petty promised "deep cuts" from the band's 35-year catalog of songs, and the Heartbreakers delivered in abundance, including material rarely or never before performed live. There was classic roadhouse blues guitar from Mike Campbell on "Lover's Touch," while "Have Love, Will Travel" (last performed a decade earlier) included the inspirational lyric: "How about a cheer for all those bad girls, and all those boys that play that rock & roll?"
The weekend shows will help KCSN increase its signal strength, and were an rare chance to see Petty and the Heartbreakers live. The band is currently recording a new album, but future touring plans are uncertain. "It doesn't matter if it's 500 or 500,000," Petty joked of the small crowd, "it scares me to death."
"We weren't all in the same country yesterday, but we practiced backstage," Petty added. Fans were close enough to count the buttons on Petty's vest as he picked up an acoustic guitar for the gentle, cascading "Angel Dream," with achingly subtle backup from the band. Covers included the soul classic "Green Onions" by BookerT. and the MGs and the molten blues of Muddy Waters' "Champagne and Reefer."
The Heartbreakers performed several tunes from last year's Mojo album, including a swampy "Jefferson Jericho Blues," as Benmont Tench banged a white baby grand like Professor Longhair. They also reached all the way back to a Stonesy "Fooled Again" – from their 1976 debut – slippinginto the old song like they'd been playing it in all the years since. "We were coming to this gig and said, 'Let's play a bunch of shit we don't know,'" Petty said. "It's turned out pretty good."
Earlier, Jakob Dylan was joined by the L.A.-based act Everest for a half-hour set of smoldering blues and folk from last year's acclaimed Women + Country album. Dylan also performed a couple of Wallflowers hits, including "6th Avenue Heartache," which featured Campbell on the original recording. Taking note of the night stillahead, Dylan said, "What a treat this evening, right?"
"Jefferson Jericho Blues"
"Listen to Her Heart"
"Mary Jane's Last Dance"
"I Won't Back Down"
"Takin' My Time"
"Champagne and Reefer"
"Have Love, Will Travel"
"When A Kid Goes Bad"
"To Find a Friend"
"First Flash of Freedom"
"I Shoulda Known It"
"Running Down a Dream"
"You Wreck Me"