The story may change as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continue with their six-concert stand at the 1,400-capacity Henry Fonda Theater, but on opening night the star attraction in this vault-mining experiment was guitarist Mike Campbell.
Petty’s right-hand man since their start in Florida, Campbell reaped the benefits of a set list that played to his bluesy strengths – “Mojo’s” “Good Enough” – his intensity – the classic “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” and “Mojo’s” Zeppelin-esque “I Should Have Known It” – and, even better, free reign to expand a song such as the Traveling Wilburys’ “Tweeter and The Monkey Man” with a spacey interlude complete with shimmering notes.
Anyone wondering what the benefit of seeing Petty in a small setting instead of arena, the answer on June 3 was Campbell.
It’s no secret that Petty likes to stay true to recorded versions of songs whenever he’s on an arena tour. It works as a sign of his professionalism – crispness and exacting performance are his measure of success – and even when Campbell or keyboardist Benmont Tench expanded the Heartbreakers’ material at the Fonda, the criteria for an A-level Petty show were still met, whether in the slight tweaking of “Rebels” or the balls-to-wall fun of “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone,” the Paul Revere and the Raiders/Monkees hit given a slight “Psychotic Reaction” twist. Little Feat’s “Willin'” was the lone nod to geography as he paid tribute to the “ghosts” of the L.A. rock scene, in this case the late Lowell George.
Much as Petty is using this for “the album track,” out of 20 songs, more than a third were greeted by full-audience sing-alongs. The obscurities were not so much B sides or deep cuts on hit albums, but tracks from more recent overlooked works – “Mojo’s” two songs, “Billy the Kid” from “Echo,” “Angel Dream” from his song score to “She’s the One,” and “Melinda,” a song for his wife that has only been released on a box set collection of live tracks.
Petty’s mission in these shows – he just completed a five-concert run at the Beacon in New York – feels different from his historic run at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in 1997. Then, at the top of his game, Petty was paying tribute to his past and influences, reconnecting with a core fan base and proving the mettle of the Heartbreakers as top-shelf performing unit.
The runs in L.A. and New York avoid nostalgia – guess that’s for future arena shows – and aim for artistry and a completeness of vision. Much as Petty has lamented the lack of access his new music has to radio playlists – he did make an entire album rightfully griping about the situation – these shows help connect the dots between the hits, obscurities, covers and recent works. Anyone willing to dissect and analyze the set lists at the end of this run may well see a rare run of rock ‘n’ roll consistency in both songwriting and performance; there’s not a dog in his canon and playing those second to last album cuts may well prove that. His methodology in these changing set lists, more than any hits revue, will certainly provide a reason to elevate Petty and the Heartbreakers’ status among the greats of all-time, not that most folks did not already have them high on the list already.
Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the Fonda in Hollywood on June 4, 6, 8, 9 and 11.
Here’s the set list from the June 3rd show:
“So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”
“Love is a Long Road”
“I Won’t Back Down”
“Fooled Again I Don’t Like It”
“Cabin Down Below”
“(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”
“A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me”
“Billy the Kid”
“Tweeter and Monkey Man”
“To Find a Friend”
“I Should Have Known It”
“Running Down a Dream”
“You Wreck Me”