Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ended their May 26th show at New York’s Beacon Theater – the fifth night of their deep-cuts residency – the same way they closed the other four: with the signature jangle and exultant, staccato-guitar finish of “American Girl,” from their 1976 debut album. And they got there the same way: a few, consistent sign-post numbers surrounded by spiritually apt covers, unpredictable album tracks and loopy rarities, rolled out in subtle, smart narratives. There were stories in everything: romantic trouble (“I Should Have Known It,” “Listen to Her Heart”); desperate need (“Down South,” from Petty’s 2006 solo album, Highway Companion); and weird cats on the prowl (the Florida-roadside-bar tale “Spike”).
There was greater resonance in the programming, too. On the fourth night, May 25th, Petty followed the crisp boogie of his “Saving Grace” with a funny, light-footed J.J. Cale song, from the latter’s 1974 album, Okie: “I’d Like to Love You Baby.” (The punch line in the chorus: “And keep my other baby too.”) There was a J.J. Cale song on the 26th as well. This time, it was the much darker “Thirteen Days” from Cale’s 1979 LP, 5 – a band-on-the-run report (“Sometimes we make money/Sometimes we don’t know/Thirteen days with five to go”) played in hard-waltz time, like Bob Dylan’s “Isis.”
And it came in the center of a run that, with each song, felt like it was going places. Petty followed his own “Honey Bee” from Wildflowers – sharing its title with a 1951 Muddy Waters single – with “Born in Chicago” from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band‘s 1965 debut LP, with Scott Thurston blowing the Butterfield-style harp and Mike Campbell evoking the late guitarist Mike Bloomfield in his fast modal swerves and stutter. After the Cale song, Petty hit the brakes for the Band-like goodbye “The Best of Everything” from Southern Accents, then settled into the rough fun of Wildflowers‘ “Cabin Down Below.” You had, by the end, a full trip in there, from roots into exile, out of crisis to at least temporary comfort.
The album tracks that saw first light in the last two shows included, on the 25th, “The Damage You’ve Done” from 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) and “Two Gunslingers” from 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open; and, on the 26th, “Honey Bee,” “Spike” and “Time to Move On,” again from Wildflowers. Petty ended up playing eight of that album’s 15 tracks over the week.
On the last night, he pulled out the B-side from those sessions, the honky-tonk goof “Girl on LSD.” It was pure comic relief – the Heartbreakers sounded appropriately wobbly, like they were shaking off their own hangovers. But even that song came with a poignant segue, into the weed, whites and devotion of Little Feat’s “Willin’.” It was the third night out for that number, in this run. It was also perfect placement.
Other repeats came with additives. The Monkees’ hit “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” a cover from the opening show, was back on the 25th – with Petty noting the Heartbreakers’ admiration for the band that recorded it first, Paul Revere and the Raiders. And between the returns to “Wildflowers” and the Grateful Dead‘s “Friend of the Devil,” Petty took a moment to explain the Heartbreakers’ roots in country music – “not like it is today, like bad rock with a fiddle,” he cracked, but in the records Petty, Campbell and pianist Benmont Tench would have heard on Florida-truckstop jukeboxes, travelling between gigs with their teenage garage combos. Then Petty and the Heartbreakers played one, with loving authenticity: Conway Twitty’s 1968 drinker’s confession, “The Image of Me.”
A Tradition in the Making
Compared to my prized bootleg of Petty’s show on February 7th, 1997 – 40 songs over more than three hours, during a legendary 20-gig residency at the Fillmore in San Francisco – the Beacon shows were a tight, decisively explosive mix of reminiscence, archaeology and concentrated hitsville. We got no “Breakdown,” “Free Fallin'” or “Jammin’ Me.” And while Petty rightly emphasized the riches in albums like Southern Accents and Wildflowers, he only touched on recent, underrated efforts such as She’s the One and The Last DJ. And I kept hoping he and Campbell would spring the Heartbreakers’ knockout cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” going long in the guitar-dogfight breaks.
But everything Petty and the Heartbreakers left undone suggests there is a more regular tradition brewing here, along the lines of the Allman Brothers Band’s spring flings in this town. Petty should certainly think of doing this more than once a decade. He’s got the band to pull it off. And they’ll never run out of songs.
In the meantime, Petty and the Heartbreakers will take the Beacon party west. They open a six-night engagement at the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles on June 3rd.