Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers started their May 21st and 23rd shows at the Beacon Theater – the second and third concerts in their New York residency – the same way they stepped into opening night: with the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'N' Roll Star" and "Love Is a Long Road" from 1989's Full Moon Fever. The repetition was worth it. On the 23rd, guitarist Mike Campbell's end solo in "Rock 'N' Roll Star" was becoming the right kind of weird, with chunks of modal eccentricity that seemed to come from a different Byrds single, "Eight Miles High." And another night of "Love Is a Long Road" was a chance to enjoy the echoes of the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" in the intro's crash and shove and the hearty coat of vocal harmonies that pianist Benmont Tench and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston added in concert.
Attending a full run of shows like these is an opportunity to watch a band's catalog unfold and see where the leader (and primary writer) feels some of his best work lies – and got lost. At these two shows, Petty went back to songs from those albums that came after his first, significant successes. On the 21st, it was "When the Time Comes" from his second LP, 1978's You're Gonna Get It: another example of how Petty and Campbell, in their early jangle, toughened up the Byrds' model while keeping it bright and stubbornly hopeful. On the 23rd, Petty turned to 1981's Hard Promises – a big record but an inevitable anticlimax after '79's platinum-buster Damn the Torpedoes – for "Nightwatchman" and "Something Big," both wry observations on barely getting by but keeping on. "He could put up with it for a little while," Petty sang in the latter, against a cloudy clang of guitars. "He was workin' on something big."
Rebels, Zeppelin and That Monkey Man
Another discovery over the long run: Petty has built these shows and the changes in repertoire around consistent tent-pole numbers that mark the next swerve into obscurities and reassure the fans they're not falling down a rabbit hole: "A Woman in Love," the Southern Accents ballad "Rebels" and the closing hits sprint of "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream."
That grounding effect also highlighted the liberated spirit of the material in-between and the extent to which Petty has re-examined, even rescued, much of his recent material. The most obvious example, each night, was "Tweeter and the Monkey Man," Petty's story-song with Bob Dylan on the first Traveling Wilburys album. Here again, repetition was good, though not exact. The soft, psychedelic breakdown in the song seemed to get more and more, with each playing, like the floating spaces in the Grateful Dead's "Dark Star."
A particular surprise on the 21st was the choked-treble chugging-guitar bed of "Saving Grace," the opening track on Petty's 2006 solo album, Highway Companion. Live, Campbell and Petty blew it up into ZZ Top's "La Grange," with Campbell slathering the drive with skittery bottleneck guitar. There was also a lot of Led Zeppelin lurking that night in the second-hour segue of "Good to Be King" from Wildflowers and Mojo's "I Should Have Known It." The first was a bitter drink ("Yeah, I'll be king when dogs get wings") of slow blues à la "Since I've Been Loving You," with Petty's Telecaster and Campbell's Les Paul locked in double grind-and-whine at the end. The second song was chunky-"Black Dog" vengeance, with a great, break-away finish.
The Stories Behind the Songs
Maybe Petty is saving his 30 years of big singles for weekend fireworks. But even a hit like "Don't Do Me Like That" from Damn the Torpedoes, broken out on the 23rd, came with the kind of back story that suits the retrospective concentration in these shows. Petty originally wrote that song for Mudcrutch, the Heartbreakers' early-Seventies incarnation. Then he nearly gave it away to the J. Geils Band.
Petty also gave an introduction that night, longer than the actual song, explaining his love for the 1965 single "I Want You Back Again" by the Zombies: how he first saw that British Invasion combo as a teenager, in Florida at a show also attended, as fate would have it, by Campbell; heard that song on the radio coming home from the concert; and played it live years later with the Heartbreakers at a London show attended by members of the Zombies, who said his version was better. "Which it wasn't," he claimed modestly. Maybe not, but the version Petty played at the Beacon was a spirited reinvention, harder than the Zombies' brisk, jazzy original, with a high, sharp choral vocal.
Later, Petty and the Heartbreakers swerved out of Little Feat's "Willin'," a repeat from the first night, back to the mid-Sixties, into a long, racing "Mystic Eyes" – Bo Diddley via Van Morrison's Belfast roughnecks Them. In the mid-section, as bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone dropped to a menacing sizzle, Petty rhapsodized about walking through a graveyard, surrounded by darkness and the dead, and still believing, "Even in moments like this that everything is alright."
Give him a beat, a Telecaster, this band, and it is – with three down and two to go really strange.