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A Fan's Notes: Tom Petty's Traveling Guitar Show PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 02 July 2008 23:21
tompetty.jpgBy Chip Lovitt - GJD Contributor
A Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show is a guitar lover's dream. I caught the band at the Prudential Center arena in Newark, New Jersey this June, and it seemed as if Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell strapped on a different guitar for every song in their two-hour, 18-song set.

That's an exaggeration, of course. But it's not stretching the truth to say that seeing the band is like a visit to a fabulous guitar show. There were new and vintage Fender Teles, Esquires, and Strats, Rickenbacker six- and 12-strings, Gibson Firebirds and ES-335s, Gibson and Guild acoustics, and even an electric sitar. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell also showed off his new blue signature model and a doubleneck 6- and 12-string made by Duesenberg Guitars.

Of course, there's more to a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show than cool guitars. There were also a ton of great tunes, terrific musicianship, and excellent four-part vocal harmonies, all delivered with precision, passion and power. Petty fans like me have come to expect no less from his shows, and once again, we were not disappointed.

The Heartbreakers have their own unmistakable sound, which is obviously driven by Petty and Campbell's intertwined rhythm and lead guitars. However, their multi-layered music also owes much to the versatile and virtuosic Benmont Tench who never fails to add just the right touch on piano and Hammond organ. Underpinning it all is a terrific rhythm section consisting of bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone, who Petty describes as "the locomotive that drives this band." Their steady, driving beat and bottom provide a rock-solid foundation that allows Petty and Campbell's guitars to soar, sing and swing.

But when it comes down to it, it really is about the songs. Tom Petty has an immense catalog of memorable tunes spanning back to the late ‘70s when those chiming 12-string chords that opened "American Girl" first came pulsing out of stereo speakers and FM radios everywhere. Many of Petty's best tunes, like "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'," and "Refugee" have become rock anthems capable of driving an arena full of fans into a frenzied sing-along. And, after 30 years on the road, Petty knows how to work a crowd as well as anyone in the business.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of the great American rock bands. Tight, tuneful and talented, these guys have been honing their craft since the ‘70s, and like Springsteen and his E-Streeters, you can tell these guys not only have a strong, time-tested musical bond, but also a genuine camaraderie on stage that springs from being friends for decades.

To kick off the show, Petty, on a blonde Fender Esquire, and Campbell, on a burgundy Gibson SG, cranked out the familiar three-chord riff that starts "You Wreck Me," and the band was off and running. Within seconds the crowd was on its feet, fists thrust in the air and hooting and hollering with delight. Most of the crowd would remain standing for the duration of the show.

The band cranked up the energy level, filling the arena with a massive sound as the interplay between Petty and Campbell's guitars built to a crescendo. Then, anchored by Benmont Tench's piano, the band brought the volume down to a spare, laid-back level that brought the song's melody and Petty's vocals front and center. Then the band brought the dynamics back up for a thunderous finish.

Mike Campbell strapped on a twin-neck Duesenberg as Petty hoisted a teardrop-shaped Vox Mark VI for an electrifying version of "Listen to her Heart." For "I Won't Back Down," Petty strummed an acoustic Guild 12-string while Campbell grabbed a gorgeous Gretsch White Falcon to churn out both stinging lead lines and a cascade of chiming chords. When Petty sang, "You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, but I won't back down," the crowd turned into a choir, much to Petty's delight.

Like the very best bands, Petty and the Heartbreakers have a deep connection with their fans. Like a Springsteen show, audience participation is not only encouraged, it's an integral part of the show. The songs may be Tom Petty's, but judging from how the audience sang and rocked along with every tune, there seems to be a sense of shared ownership of the music, one where the line between musician and listener gets blurred.
It's one thing to listen to or like a song. It's another to love it and truly and strongly identify with it, as Petty's fans seem to do.

There's no doubt that Petty and Campbell are one of rock's great rhythm and lead guitar teams. They seem to have a musical mental telepathy that allows them to fill in the spaces between their parts, but still maintain their unique sounds and styles. Playing together for more than 30 years will do that. On "Last Dance with Mary Jane," Petty's Tele provided a spare canvas of terse, chopped-off chords to which Campbell added hot, fiery lead lines with a see-through Dan Armstrong solidbody. And it's clear the reason they use so many different guitars is that they truly love the sonic possibilities each has to offer.

For example, on "Saving Grace," Campbell added a delay-drenched slide solo played on a Rickenbacker 12-string that had a dazzling and dizzying effect. Playing vintage cherry-red and tobacco sunburst ES 335s, Campbell alternated between fat neck pickup tones and burning bridge pickup-driven lead lines, often in the same solo.

The band finished with three encores including "Running Down a Dream" on which both Petty and Campbell played Gibson Firebirds (Petty's with mini-humbuckers and Campbell with twin P-90s). Campbell brought the song to its climax with a frenzied wah-wah-laced solo, then the band kicked into a long version of Van Morrison's three-chord classic, "Gloria." Then, as the last chords of "American Girl" echoed through the arena, we hit the streets, satisfied and once again renewed by the power and passion of Tom Petty's heartfelt rock and roll.

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