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Published: 2006/07/02
by Simeon Cohen

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Madison Square Garden, NYC- 6/20

It was a sweltering June evening, which was even more blistering inside a sold out Madison Square Garden. Yet it seemed to be of no difference to Tom Petty, who strolled out on stage wearing long pants, a jacket, a tie and a scarf. He certainly perpetuated his style well, despite the Garden’s inherent humidity. Petty looked as if he had literally just walked right off the cover his 1979 album, Damn the Torpedoes. One had to look at the gray beard and cornrow hairstyle of Petty’s right-hand man and lead guitarist, Mike Campbell, to realize that this was the Heartbreakers of the 21st century.

Blasting off with a note-perfect rendition of “Listen to Her Heart,” the band had the Garden crowd on its feet in a matter of seconds and kept them in that position for the duration of their high-energy performance. The tone of Campbell’s trademark 12-string Rickenbacker guitar resonated throughout the arena all evening, recalling the classic “jingle-jangle” sound of the Byrds, who heavily influenced Petty’s style. Fresh off a headlining slot at the massive Tennessee music festival, Bonnaroo, Petty and the Heartbreakers played with a sense of renewed vitality which seemed to transcend the confines of age (most of the band members, including Petty, are in their mid 50’s). Tom Petty’s repertoire plays like a generational soundtrack. His songs defined the lives of thousands of teenagers in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s; no other American songwriter has been able to lyrically and musically manifest adolescent angst so well (sorry, Kurt).

It had been three years since the Heartbreakers last played the Garden, and the Petty-hungry crowd was hanging onto the man’s every move, with simultaneous precision and raucousness. Obliging the eager crowd early on, Petty played two of his classic drug anthems, “You Don’t Know How it Feels” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the latter featuring some impressive guitar work from Petty himself. During these two crowd-pleasers, the audience obediently sent furls of smoke up to the heavens. As the smoke ascended to the rafters of the arena, one could almost see Red Holzman’s banner grinning.

Petty played a host of his classic rock staples; “Refugee” (which features one of rock’s most famous didactic similes: “You don’t have to live like a refugee”) “I Won’t Back Down” and “Running Down a Dream.” were all executed with a sense of wild meticulousness rarely found this side of Mick Jagger. “Running Down a Dream” was the official song of the NBA playoffs, which ended just minutes after the show. Ironically the Miami Heat, another Florida group (Petty is from Gainesville) prevailed triumphantly

As this year is the Heartbreaker’s 30th anniversary, Petty decided to pay tribute to his musical forbearers by playing a pair of 1960’s British blues numbers, including the Yardbirds “I’m a Man.” He even dusted off the Traveling Wilbury’s classic “Handle With Care” which conjured up the presence of George Harrison, not through Krishna chanting, but through Petty’s energetic take on Harrison’s vocal, and Campbell’s flawless recreation of his slide-guitar riffs.

About 2/3rds of the way through the set, Petty brought out his legendary musical companion and fellow classic rocker, Stevie Nicks, who Petty lovingly referred to as “his little sister.” The pair did a rendition of their classic “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” as well as “The Insider,” which Petty and Nicks recorded for Petty’s 1981 Hard Promises album. Nicks even added her idiosyncratic vocals to the classic Petty rave-up rocker, “I Need to Know.”

Unfortunately, the pace slowed a bit during the acoustic segment of the show, but picked up again when Petty led the crowd in a rousing rendition of the uplifting ballad, “Learning to Fly.” The evening closed with the band’s most recognizable tune, “American Girl,” from their 1976 eponomyous debut, which left the crowd in a rocking daze.

Unfortunately, opener and former Phish front man Trey Anastasio couldn’t live up to Petty’s standards. In the unfortunate post-Phish world, Anastasio is having a bit of a difficult time articulating his sound. His last album, Shine, leaned towards the poppy end of the spectrum, while his first, self-titled solo album (released during Phish’s pre-breakup hiatus) was peppered with Latin beats and an extensive horn section. Yet when performing live, Anastasio amalgamates these two characteristics and they usually mesh very well.

Trey is not meant to be an opening act. In this role he plays with an uncharacteristic sense of celerity, opting to forgo any extended jamming and failing to flex his musical muscles and display his guitar virtuosity. Jam-staples such as “Money, Love and Change” and “Night Speaks to a Woman” had to be significantly abbreviated. The songs generally didn’t exceed 5 or 6 minutes, and consequently, the true Trey Anastasio experience was lost on the crowd. This summer, however, Anastasio will be regrouping with Phish bassist Mike Gordon for a joint tour with Phil Lesh and the Benevento-Russo duo. Hopefully during those shows, he will be able to express himself with less restraint and jam until the dawn.

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