Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened their May 20th concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the first show of a five-night residency, with a song about wish fulfillment: a cover of the Byrds’ 1967 single “So You Want to be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star.” It was the right beginning. As guitarist Mike Campbell conjured Roger McGuinn’s signature ring on a 12-string Rickenbacker guitar, Petty delivered the playful mocking in the lyrics – of outsized dreams and built-in obsolescence – with a winner’s grit in his Florida drawl.
Petty, 62, also pressed home the life’s work in the Byrds’ hit, summed up in the last line: “Don’t forget who you are/You’re a rock & roll star.” The singer’s once sun-yellow blond hair is now a sandier hue, and his beard gives him the gravity of a Civil War general. He also moves with a more measured posing than I remember from the first, out-for-blood Heartbreakers show I saw – a club date in Delaware in the spring of 1977 (so early in the band’s hard rise that they played two sets).
But when Petty sidled over to Campbell during the latter’s jumping, modal solo at the end of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” the lifelong sidekicks looked like they hadn’t aged a day or finished that work – facing each other in matching crouches over their instruments, burrowing into the church-bell jangle like they know there’s still more to find.
Deep Tracks and Southern Accents
“I don’t want to do a ‘greatest hits’ night,” Petty told me in late February, shortly before he announced the Beacon shows and another run in Los Angeles at the Fonda Theatre that starts June 6th. “When you’re together as long as we’ve been, there’s a lot to keep up with.”
Petty and his long-serving band – Campbell, keyboard player Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, Scott Thurston on additional guitars and keys and drummer Steve Ferrone – immediately jumped back, out of the Byrds’ song, into their own history, with a determined depth of examination and conclusions. “Love Is a Long Road,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Cabin Down Below” all came in the first half hour – and all from what were technically Petty solo albums, 1989’s Full Moon Fever (the first two songs) and ’94’s Wildflowers. But the ensemble charge affirmed how much the Heartbreakers also own those numbers and how lucky Petty is to have such a reliable – and pushing – band. The funk underpinning to Ferrone’s crisp rhythm in “I Won’t Back Down” was a sharp reminder; the drummer, who joined the Heartbreakers in 1994, used to be in the Average White Band. Later, in the Live Anthology rarity “Melinda,” Tench showed off the jazzy dynamics and classical grace he usually plays inside a song’s arrangement in an extended shape-shifting solo, at chase-scene tempo.
By midpoint, the set had already fulfilled Petty’s promise to go long and deep, from the early anger of “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” from 1976’s Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to “Good Enough” on 2010’s Mojo, with its virile flashback in the crunchy, crawling guitars to the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Petty joked about those album tracks that end up “wasting away at track five, track six” before reviving the heavy-Dylanesque defiance of “Billy the Kid” from 1999’s Echo. (Actually, it was track nine.) And he entered the show’s acoustic section with “Rebels” from 1985’s Southern Accents, claiming “I’ve written three songs in my life about the South . . . I’m not sure it’s the best,” then singing the declaration of outsider’s pride in the chorus with grainy certainty.
Covers and Hits
Petty swung wide in the show’s few covers: pulling into Hard Promises‘ “A Woman in Love” from the Monkees’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”; gently rolling out of “Angel Dream” from Petty’s 1996 soundtrack, She’s the One, into Little Feat’s truckers’ prayer “Willin’.” “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” written by Petty and Bob Dylan for The Traveling Wilburys‘ 1988 debut, was not exactly a cover, but it sounded nothing like the original either. Campbell’s throaty slide guitar and the fuller surge of the Heartbreakers shoved the song out of its spooky-country eccentricity on the Wilburys record, into harder blues dada with an unexpected bonus in the thick, gleaming coat of vocal harmonies that Petty, Tench and Thurston draped over the final choruses.
The band is apparently spreading the hits out over their Beacon stay. “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” closed the main set; “American Girl” was the final encore. In between, Petty kicked into Chuck Berry‘s “Carol” – except Campbell sounded like he was hitting licks from another tune, in a different key. He switched guitars, but that didn’t help. You could see him turn to Tench, mouthing the words, “Oh, it’s in F,” with a slightly embarrassed smile, before getting down to the right business.
It was an amusing, humanizing moment in a concert that emphasized the labor, relationships and risk that make a lasting rock stardom. Once Campbell got his groove back, you could also see Petty stroll up to him again, the two slashing at their guitars, shoulder to shoulder – with Petty wearing this slight but cocky grin on his face, like he’s saying, “Yeah, we bad.”
And they are, still. As for the Beacon run, it’s one down and four to go deeper.