In general, although I have been a follower for many years, I have a big sense of disappointment about Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers concerts in the past 10 years because of his play-it-safe, please-the-mainstream-casual-fan approach. Even though his radio hits are very good songs, there are many many equally good songs in his songbook that almost never get played live. There is so much potential for brilliance in a Petty concert (the Heartbreakers seem to get better and better as a rock band as time goes by) and yet what fans are hearing on the Mojo tour is a short show (17 songs, 90 minutes) of all radio hits, a Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac cover that has been played regularly in the past decade and four new songs from the Mojo album. The setlist has been virtually identical every night of the tour (although First Flash Of Freedom and You Wreck Me were being played earlier in the tour, they have now been dropped). There are no back-catalog rarities, no classic duets with Stevie Nicks, not a single bone thrown to the hardcore fans tired of hearing Free Fallin’ at every concert since 1989, and only one song from the quintessential Damn The Torpedoes record. We are in the times when former concert staples Here Comes My Girl and Even The Losers have become hoped-for rarities that don’t get played at all anymore. I find that astounding. Tom was even apologetic about playing King’s Highway, not exactly a rare song in the concert repertoire, because “its not a single or anything, I just thought it would be fun to play”. And 90 minutes is not even enough time to cover all the radio singles, if radio singles is all that is gonna get played. Passed over on this tour were I Need To Know, The Waiting, You Got Lucky, Don’t Do Me Like That, and Jammin’ Me. Playing all of these songs (or better yet, 5 or 6 nuggets from the past like Stop Draggin' My Heart Around, Straight Into Darkness, Change Of Heart, The Wild One Forever, etc) would add only about a half hour to the show, making it a solid and respectable two hours. If Springteen and Bob Seger can play over two hours at their ages, I'd think Petty could do the same.
But that being said, when I went to see him in Phoenix last week I had a good time and a renewed appreciation for what you get at a Petty show at the end of this decade. After all, all those radio hits are freakin’ great songs and its fun as hell to sing along with an arena full of fans, be they casual or hardcore. That renewed appreciation might have been in part due to the embarrassing experience of Chuck Berry’s opening set. You gotta give Chuck credit for still taking the stage at age 84, but he was painfully out of key on every song and seemed genuinely confused about what song was being played. He was given a loving response by the audience as befits his stature in rock ‘n’ roll history, but it was very sad to see him playing so badly. So one never knows how long the rockers will be able to keep rocking with a minimum level of competence. By comparison, Petty and the Heartbreakers, most of whom are approaching 60, sounded as much as ever like the powerhouse rock band they’ve consistently been for well over 30 years! Listen To Her Heart was as always two and a half minutes of jangly Byrdsian power pop pleasure. I Won’t Back Down is a great song of defiance no matter how many times it has been played live. The epic ending solo on Runnin’ Down A Dream was as hot as ever. So even if The Heartbreakers now ignore the vast majority of their recorded songs when they play live, at least they are still in fine form and playing well and we gotta enjoy that while we can, because it won’t last forever.
A lot of the music on Mojo was inspired by Mike Campbell’s acquisition of a classic Les Paul and Petty’s urging of Mike to cut loose guitar hero-style and get a Peter Green kind of sound. Campbell has always been an economic tone-meister of a guitarist, but at this show anytime he strapped on that Les Paul, that song instantly became heavier and dirtier. Mary Jane’s Last Dance, in particular, benefited from the Les Paul tone. The solo in Good Enough (the slow blues rave up from Mojo) was suitably killer. All the Mojo songs were played in a group about ¾ way through the show. Missing were the Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers-ish First Flash of Freedom and the lovely ballad No Reason To Cry. All in all, a satisfying show only if you take it as it comes and appreciate it for what it is.
I still dream, though, of Petty concerts in which a revolving selection of the radio hits are blended with a rotating cast of back-catalog nuggets from night to night. In this scenario, if you want to hear your favorite popular song, you might need to see a few shows, but in return you are rewarded with the chance of hearing some less-well known songs that are liked buried treasures. This keeps the fans anticipating what they might hear and presumably keeps the band from being bored by playing the same show and songs night after night after night. That is basically the exact model that The Black Crowes have been following for years in their live shows. Maybe one day, Petty will do a rarities tour in which he digs deep and shows off the impressive song catalog he has amassed over the years.