I became a fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers several years ago by a chance encounter with a friend's iPod. I became obsessed and ended up going through what I thought was his whole catalogue. I classified him as a classic rock artist who was underappreciated, no longer relevant, and patted myself on the back for "getting it." So when I heard that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were coming to Seattle on August 19, I grabbed my credit card and headed to my laptop, ready to buy a general admission ticket to Neumos or the Showbox…maybe the Moore Theater. After all, if the bands that I listened to in high school were playing those venues when they came to town, that's where I'd find Tom Petty.
I could not have been more wrong. Tom Petty's catalogue spans 40 years, 13 albums, 68 singles, and his most recent record, The Hypnotic Eye, (which I had not heard) debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 in 2014. Tom Petty is still very relevant, very appreciated, and he was not playing at a classic Seattle venue, he was playing at Safeco Stadium, home of the Seattle Mariners. I detest stadium shows. I detest paying $20 for parking, standing in a line a mile long to pay $10 for a crappy beer, driving at a snail's pace on the way home, all to see tiny figures far away that I am told is the band I’m here to see. But, a fan's gotta do what a fan's gotta do.
I went. I tried to make it as enjoyable as I could by getting dropped off at the corner of the stadium and accepting that I would not be enjoying any adult beverages for the evening. After waiting a half hour just to get into the stadium, I made my way to the floor (which took another 30 minutes), found my seat, and resolved not to move until the end of the show in order to minimize my interaction with the riffraff.
Soon, the band appeared on stage with little pomp and circumstance, showing none of the rock star ego I’ve come to expect from time-tested musicians of Tom Petty's ilk. He greeted us warmly, like the favorite uncle you only see during major holidays. They opened with the very first song from their very first album, a lesser-known ditty called "Rockin' Around With You". It was a treat for long-time die-hard fans, who relished hearing one of his less popular tunes live, and it was a reminder to newer fans that Tom Petty has more to offer than just the several dozen huge hits we were all familiar with.
Laid back and at-ease on stage (even when a technical glitch caused the sound to cut out for an entire song), Tom knows who he is as an artist. He doesn't strive for an image or persona, he's genuine. And he seems grateful -- almost surprised -- that so many people enjoy what he does as much as he enjoys what he does. He plays without pretense. The whole band’s musicianship is as good as it has ever been. However, his current backup singers, Charley and Hattie Webb, stole the show from the other band members in both stage presence and sheer talent. But rather than "put on a performance," they simply played their songs with the same attitude that fans have loved them for since 1976 -- easy going and unassuming. They must have tossed out the set list after the first several songs, because Tom kept playing "requests." He said, "We don't usually do requests, but we'll make an exception this time, because I requested it." In between songs he'd powwow with each of his band members to clue them in on what was next on the impromptu set list, and then thrill us with something unexpected.
While I did enjoy the show and relish the fact that I got to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at all, it was a stadium show and it had all the trappings of any stadium show. I had a great seat, right on the floor, but the distance was palpable. Huge monitors broadcasted the performance, and since the band was so tiny and far away, I really had to focus on trying to watch the stage rather than the monitor to avoid the feeling of watching a concert DVD with thirty-thousand people.
Every stadium show stage has a gimmick. With Cher it's dozens of costume changes. With Kiss it's pyrotechnics. With Alice Cooper it's theatrics. Tom Petty is no exception to the stage gimmick rule, but his was unique. A ceiling of big white globes on mechanized retracting cables glowed different colors above the stage, undulating to differing heights with the tempo, creating a wavy rippling affect. It was a pretty original gimmick, but, as always, it felt like a sorry attempt to make us feel like we saw a show. Yeah, it was cool, and props to the guy who engineered it, but I can't help but feel like maybe it's the lighting guy we really paid to see (though I’ll say he deserved every penny).
Politicians could take a cue from Petty -- he knows how to unite an audience. He appeals to broad spectrum, from the stoner to the golfer. He's folksy enough to be disarming, but edgy enough to draw in fans of harder rock who, even if they find his music somewhat simple, respect his authenticity and enthusiasm. The honest, comforting songs that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have showered us with over the last 40 years transcend human division. Petty's lyrics all share the truly American notion about taking the road less travelled to find out who you are, and being true to that person. Even his breakup songs inspire hope. You may not ever be impressed by a Tom Petty guitar solo or wonder what time signature he’s playing in, but if you’re really listening, you might just learn something about yourself. Even the losers get lucky sometimes. You don’t have to live like a refugee. Take it easy baby, even walls fall down.