LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - No flashpots, lasers or elaborate stage sets. No grimacing solos or rehearsed rants.
So why — year after year, tour after tour — does Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers remain one of the best live acts in rock? It’s the sound, and the songs.
With innate professionalism, effortless versatility and alternately muscular and graceful music, the Rock Hall of Famers delivered a typically crowd-pleasing show at the Hollywood Bowl Wednesday.
Petty and the band are on a roll the past year, with a four-hour documentary and Super Bowl halftime show to their credit. They likely could have sold out Staples Center on this tour but opted for a return visit to the Bowl, which they also packed two summers ago. With no new record to promote, this show was markedly similar to that 2006 gig: same length, 13 of the same songs and Petty’s word-for-word intonation that “I’ve come to rock Hollywood.”
Meanwhile, the crowd’s phrase of choice — overheard in the parking lot, beer lines and seats — was, “I hope he plays ...” Few likely went home disappointed. Half of the set’s 20 songs are on the 10-times-platinum “Greatest Hits” album; a half-dozen others, including the three covers, are staples of classic rock radio.
But that left precious little for the hardcore fans — the ones who have been coming to their shows for decades and likely always will. So Petty and his band remain mired between a pair of adages: Give the people what they want versus you can’t please everyone. The staid set list is the only major gripe about Heartbreakers shows these days, though, and this one had plenty to enjoy.
Some of the songs were played note-for-note, some extended — exactly as it should be. “You Wreck Me” was moved from its encore slot in ‘06 to leadoff, priming the crowd. A couple of radio mainstays later, Mike Campbell’s searing guitar lead on “Even the Losers” was as effective as ever, further clouding memories of when Petty opted to turn that one into an acoustic piece live. “Sweet William,” unreleased in the U.S., toyed with tempos, whisking from whisper to scream and back.
Opener Steve Winwood joined the band for the Blind Faith classic “Can’t Find My Way Home” and the bar/wedding/prom/garage band chugger “Gimme Some Lovin’.” The latter was played with a rock lover’s glee, with Winwood showing that he’s still on the Hammond B-3 A-list. It left the sold-out crowd buzzing.
The band followed with the night’s only visit to a post-1995 Petty album. “Saving Grace,” from 2006’s “Highway Companion,” was broken down and rocked up, with the Heartbreakers in jam-band mode. The group then shifted gears for the sexy, seductive ancient blues of “Honey Bee.” It was the night’s most potent one-two punch.
Showing off its easy versatility, the sextet then slid into the forlorn groove of “A Face in the Crowd,” with Campbell playing on a long solo on a double-neck guitar. One of rock’s most unsung heroes, Campbell never stole a spotlight but spiced the set with bracing licks, fiery yet restrained leads and sheer virtuosity. And how exactly did he work a little “Angel of the Morning” into “Don’t Come Around Here No More?”
The three-song encore was highlighted by a goofily funny story about how Petty wants to “have a conversation” with this woman he meets. But she won’t even give him her name because he looks like he doesn’t even have a job and, “Hell, you smell like marijuana.” But when he mentions that he’s in a rock ‘n’ roll band that has a gig at the Hollywood Bowl, she gives up the information: “G-L-O-R-I-A.” The song, the rap and the yell-along were outstanding.
Yes, Petty can still work a crowd. And after more than three decades of touring, he has managed to keep a bite in his voice and a swagger in his step that he deploys at will.
Now if only he’d mine those classic albums more.