By Dave Pehling
BERKELEY (CBS SF) — Fans of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers breathed a sigh of relief Monday night when the band ably made up the first of three postponed Northern California concerts with a powerful, hit-filled set that found the singer in good voice despite his recent illness.
Those lucky enough to score tickets to one of the two remaining sold-out dates at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theatre after last Tuesday’s first concert had to be wondering if the scheduled second and third shows were going to happen after Petty’s bout with laryngitis and bronchitis led to the last-minute cancellation Wednesday night. Subsequent postponements of scheduled performances at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center on Friday and Sunday’s return show at the Greek couldn’t have filled folks with confidence.
Despite the questions over the Petty’s health after less than a week of recovery time, the Greek was packed to the gills with expectant followers hoping that the singer and his stellar backing group would be able to deliver at their usual level of execution. Anticipation surrounding the band’s current 40th anniversary tour was already high after Petty suggested this could be the group’s final major U.S. outing. While a late arrival meant missing opening act the Shelters, word from audience members who caught the L.A.-based band was that their modern spin to the Beatles/Byrds jangle-rock template served as solid warm up for the main event (interested parties looking for another taste or to see the band for the first time can catch the Shelters playing a headlining show at the Independent in San Francisco on Thursday night).
Darkness had fallen on Greek by the time Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage to an enthusiastic roar from the crowd. The amiable frontman smiled and waved to the crowd before introducing the first song from the band’s first album, sliding into an energetic version of “Rockin’ Around (With You)” to kick off the concert. While not exactly a radio hit, the already standing and excited audience greeted the song with gusto, bopping and singing along to the longtime fan favorite.
The latter-era radio hit “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” followed, triggering what would be the first of many singalong moments over the course of the next two hours. While fans were eager to participate in the choir of voices, Petty happily proved his own vocal chords had recovered from his sickness with his singing showing no lingering signs of laryngitis. The song also offered the first glimpse at the inner workings of what makes the Heartbreakers such an outstanding unit with auxiliary player Scott Thurston — who provided additional keyboards, rhythm guitar and backing vocals throughout the evening — honking out that song’s signature harmonica hook as well as the adding harp to the first of numerous solo Petty hits, “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
The band then dealt out the muscular riffs of “Forgotten Man,” a song from the group’s excellent 2014 effort Hypnotic Eye, before moving into living, breathing jukebox mode with a string of Petty’s best loved songs from the ’90s including “Into the Great Wide Open,” “I Won’t Back Down” and the ringing acoustic #1 hit “Free Fallin'” that keep the crowd on its feet and singing at the top of their lungs.
There’s no question that the charismatic Petty stands as the group’s focal point onstage as singer and main songwriter, but it’s the well-oiled backing of the Heartbreakers that makes the outfit one of the greatest still surviving live acts from the 1970s. Founding lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard wizard Benmont Tench delivered ample musical pyrotechnics throughout the evening, with Campbell in particular putting on a display of blazing, tasteful chops that showed why he is arguably the most underrated rock guitar hero of the last four decades.
The rhythm section of former Average White Band member and session drummer extraordinaire Steve Ferrone (who Petty joked was still referred to as “the new guy” with only a 24-year tenure in the band) and bassist Ron Blair gave the songs a solid foundation while imbuing even the more laid-back, languid numbers a gentle propulsion that keep the evening moving. The only new addition to the veteran band’s line-up on the 40th anniversary tour turned out to be backing vocalists, the Webb Sisters.
Noted British siblings Charley and Hattie Webb — who have release several of their own acclaimed albums as well as touring with the late Leonard Cohen — sang shimmering, intertwining harmonies that subtly tweaked the expected vocal arrangements to Petty’s familiar hits into glorious new places, especially during an extended take on the psychedelic mid-1980s hit “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
A trio of tunes from the 1994 Petty offering Wildflowers — including the poignant “It’s Good to Be King” that gave Campbell another chance to shine with a lengthy guitar solo to close out the song — proved entertaining, but also pointed up the only minor quibble a hardcore Petty fan might have with the show. Since it was Petty’s 1989 breakthrough solo album Full Moon Fever that elevated the songwriter from established rocker to bonafide MTV star (granted, being a member of former Beatle George Harrison’s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne around the same time didn’t hurt), it wasn’t so surprising that the band concentrated on the major hits from that album. The inclusion of a whopping five tunes from Wildflowers when such Petty standards as “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Here Comes My Girl” failed to make the cut likely had some in attendance scratching their heads.
But in the end, it was impossible not to enjoy the sound of Petty and the Heartbreakers hitting on all cylinders as the band pounded out the swampy, swaggering rocker “I Should Have Known It” (with a fiery slide solo courtesy Campbell) before plowing into rousing takes on the classic “Refugee” and main set closer “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” The noisy and boisterous audience demanded more and were quickly appeased as the band emerged for a raucous two-song encore of “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl” that sent fans off into the warm Berkeley night with smiles on their faces.
Rockin’ Around (With You)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
You Don’t Know How It Feels
Into the Great Wide Open
I Won’t Back Down
Don’t Come Around Here No More
It’s Good to Be King
Crawling Back to You
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
You Wreck Me