Live Review: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Last Show at the Hollywood Bowl

Editor’s note: Paul Zollo wrote this review prior to Tom Petty’s passing on Monday. Check back tomorrow for his remembrance of Petty. For more photos from this show, click here.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Hollywood Bowl
September 25, 2017

It felt more like a party than a concert. The very last leg of what Tom called a “really long tour,” that started back in April, it delivered a Petty even more exultant that usual. Delightfully gregarious hosting this big party, he seemed happier than he’s ever been in concert, beaming with infectious joy from the first chord onward. Sounding positively giddy when talking to the crowd, especially when extolling the greatness of the Heartbreakers and sharing unprecedented tales of his great fortune at meeting them all.

Hearing the ecstatic tone of his speaking voice, one nearby audience member wondered aloud, “Is Tom Petty drunk?”

To which came the immediate answer: “Drunk on rock and roll, dude!”

Indeed. Tom and the band’s connection with the original juice of rock and roll remains so vital and pure that all of these shows have transcended spectacle to become inspirational celebrations of rock and roll itself. Unlike other famous bands who transformed into little more than summer jukeboxes, churning out hits with little more soul then Karaoke singers, the Heartbreakers never allowed their rock and roll flag to fade. With unparalleled musicians such as Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, two of the greatest players to ever empower an American band, each show is a joyful and electric journey directly into the still beating heart of rock & roll.

Add to that band the monumental Steve Ferrone on drums, original Heartbreaker Ron Blair on bass, Scott Thurston on a multitude of instruments (harmonica, keyboard, guitars and more), and for the first tour ever, added harmony vocalists, the Webb Sisters, singing and dancing up a storm, and you have a rock & roll shoe unlike any other, as incendiary and also delicately dynamic as Tom’s songs themselves, and every bit as real. Which is what it all comes down to. This is the real deal. Tom learned long ago this stuff can’t be faked, not the songwriting, not the musicianship, not the shows. If it is fake, the audience knows. And they also know what is real. Which is why this man and this band remain beloved through four decades of making music.

As his devoted fans know well, Tom replaced original drummer Stan Lynch back in 1994, not because Tom found his drumming inadequate. He didn’t. But simply because they didn’t get along. (When I asked him if he and Stan fought about the music, Tom laughed and said, “No, we fought about everything!”)

So to preserve his own sanity and preserve the passion, Tom replaced Stan, which was not easy for him. The man who got the job was Steve Ferrone, who had previously drummed for everyone from Johnny Cash through Clapton, Slash and Scritti Politti. He was the ideal choice. A man of great joy and calm, his groove is so precise and yet funky at the same time that the rhythmic foundation of each song is remarkable, soulfully solid and also unbound and electric. Of his drumming on the supercharged “You Wreck Me,” Tom said he was astounded. “He does stuff,” Tom said, “that drum machines can’t do!” That is for sure.

Also bassist Ron Blair, an original member of the band who left long ago to start a bikini store in L.A. and was replaced by the late great Howie Epstein, is back in the fold, and powerfully so. His simple but elegant bass-lines were deeply in the pocket with Ferrone all night, providing a tremendously sturdy rhythmic bed on which Mike and Benmont could soar. Even Tom took many guitar solos, always smiling, and never trying to dazzle as much as add more musical kindling to this great blazing rock & roll fire.

Mike Campbell’s playing is always exceptional, and this night was no exception. He plays flawlessly amazing solos and parts on each song, and with an ease and flair that seems to delight Tom. So many times when Mike was soaring on a solo, Tom looked transported. As Tom said when introducing the band, Mike is simply one of the greatest guitar heroes of any American rock band ever. That this wasn’t mere hyperbole was evidenced by the vigor and grace of his playing all night long.

Benmont Tench also astounded and amazed both Tom and the audience all night with his immaculately rich keyboard parts and solos. When he took an organ solo early in the show, for example, it had all the singular command and unique elegance of a Hendrix guitar solo. He’s also the calm in the frenzy of this hurricane, holding down the fort with great harmonic grace and power as furious solos were being swapped all around him.

But as already has been proved countless times, great musicians alone do not ensure great concerts or records. It all starts with the songs. But precisely because Mr. Petty’s passion for the art and craft of songwriting has been so pure and expansive over these forty years, the timeless force of his songs is unbound, and fuels the rocket of this band to something positively supersonic.

After all, even Dylan rarely had a band of this greatness, with the exceptions of The Band, of course, and his own 1986 tour playing with Tom and The Heartbreakers. Dylan recognized during that tour what we all understand. It doesn’t get better. Not only are The Heartbreakers all remarkable musicians, they all share the same element with Tom that holds the thing together: genuine passion. When they play, you can tell it feels as good to them as to us. This isn’t phony. It’s the real deal. (In fact, so overwhelmed was Dylan by the sheer power and focus of Petty & The Heartbreakers, as he related in his beautiful book Chronicles [which Tom said resonated with him like a beautiful epic poem], that he found himself with an intense lack of confidence and capacity to connect with the power that he once knew.)

In this age of corporate rock, when so much is contrived as a spectacle for mass consumption, building something this immense on the power of purity, of real rock and roll fire, is tremendously rare and vitally necessary. Petty genuinely loves music. The passion that ignites all his songs and which explodes with unchained dynamism, is authentic.

“Other people who do what I do,” he told me once, “do other stuff, like go to Hawaii or play golf. This is what I love to do best.”

That love has resulted in a remarkable bounty of great songs which has been incrementally expanding for four full decades now. And though Tom’s been every bit as artistically expansive and ambitious in his songwriting over these decades as famous pals, he’s also surpassed nearly all of them as a remarkable hit maker. He’s got so many he has to leave many of them out. Which is a good problem. Countless beloved classics such as “You Got Lucky,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “The Waiting” and others were left unperformed on this night.

But with such a profusion of solid, inspired songwriting that was performed, those songs weren’t missed. And as his fans know well, Tom’s got a profusion of songs that were never charting hits but are every bit as brilliant and powerfully constructed as the singles.

(Examples of this abound, such as “Insider,” the visceral duet with Stevie Nicks that Tom first intended for her to sing solo before reconsidering and giving her “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Also “Two Gunslingers,” one of the funniest serious songs he’s ever written, “Southern Accents,” which resounds with such intimate beauty that it stands as his “Let It Be,” and “The Best of Everything,” produced by Robbie Robertson for the King of Comedy soundtrack.)

On this tour, however, Tom is performing several of those rarely performed gems. He started the show with the first song he ever recorded on his first album, “Rockin’ Around With You,” which led into a glorious 18-song set that concluded with one of his first monster hits, “American Girl.”

Perhaps most moving of these non-hits was the poignant “Crawling Back To You,” from Wildflowers, presented in a mini-set of songs from that album which also included a stridently expansive rendition of “It’s Good To Be King” and a gentle acoustic “Wildflowers.” Set in Los Angeles, “Crawling” contains one of Tom’s most intimate human admissions in a song in its final verse, which he told me was entirely true to his nature:

I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things that I worry about
Never happen anyway

Though many still cling to the myth that as great as Petty might be, he still stands forever in the shadow of famous friends like Bob Dylan and George Harrison, it just isn’t so. Over these four decades, in which Tom emerged from the start with powerful songs, he’s consistently evolved and expanded his musical palette, expression and execution, creating a miraculous bounty of real songwriting greatness. Unlike so many of his peers who also started strong and then peaked back when MTV was still in vogue, he never stopped learning and growing. Never did he abandon the essential Americana rock and roll fire of The Heartbreakers for long, even when stepping out alone to other musical parts of town.

(When Dave Stewart and Tom used drum machines and synths in 1985 to create the tracks that became “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” for example, achieving a fresh and brilliant soundscape even without The Heartbreakers, Tom still managed to bring in the the band for the big double-time rave-up ending. On this night the band played the whole song, easily making it their own, with the great Mr. Ferrone echoing and expanding the famous drum pattern.)

In 1989, as is famously known, Petty took a break from the band completely to make his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. Produced by Jeff Lynne, who Tom called “the best producer I have ever worked with,” it was a departure from the band that liberated his artistic spirit, and resulted in one of the most pure, heartfelt and inspired albums of our time, Full Moon Fever. With a chain of classics that includes his most famous song ever, “Free Fallin’,” it was an instant landmark of rock.

Which is not to say the industry, or his label, supported what they considered an audacious breach of rock and roll ethics, a singer leaving his band to go solo. The first time he brought in the finished album to his label, they listened and were markedly unimpressed.

“Sorry, Tom,” they said, “we don’t hear a single.” They refused to release it.

Keep in mind this is the album with “Free Fallin’,” which became his biggest hit ever, a song so famous it’s become a modern standard. But that wasn’t all. The album had not one but five hits in all: “Face In The Crowd,” “Running Down A Dream” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Yes So Bad.” It’s a great lesson for all songwriters and musicians. Tom knew what he had. The songwriter knows. But often it takes a while for the industry to catch up.

The songwriter also knows the full greatness of his songs, separate from any reviews or sales figures. “You Wreck Me,” another famous non-hit as beloved as any of his hit singles, is the quintessential example of this. So universally embraced it is not that was elevated to the penultimate encore song of the night, preceding “American Girl.” Written with Mike Campbell, “You Wreck Me” is a perfect lesson in direct rock and roll simplicity. As Tom explained in our book Conversations with Tom Petty, it’s a song which took a full year to complete. The title which kept insisting itself, he knew, simply wasn’t quite right. This shows both his persistence, and also how one word in a song – which is such a short form that each word is monumental – makes all the difference. The original title was “You Rock Me,” which never felt right to him. So he kept at it, for a full year, until that one word could be replaced and the song was complete as “You Wreck Me.”

“Once I got there,” he said, “to that title, I knew I had it. But sometimes it takes a long time even to get one word.”

It’s that degree of dedication, which applies also to the production of his albums and his live shows, that explains the multi-decade phenomenon which is Tom Petty. The guy first got plugged into rock & roll as a kid seeing The Beatles on TV and meeting Elvis, and never has he disengaged since. 40 years on and he’s as great as ever, if not greater. On behalf of rock and roll itself, let’s hope this is not, as Tom has suggested, the final tour.

Long live Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Long live rock & roll.

Set list:

Rockin’ Around (With You)

Mary Jane’s Last Dance

You Don’t Know How It Feels

Forgotten Man

I Won’t Back Down

Free Fallin’

Walls

Don’t Come Around Here No More

It’s Good to Be King

Crawling Back to You

Wildflowers

Learning to Fly

Yer So Bad

I Should Have Known It

Refugee

Runnin’ Down a Dream

Encore:

You Wreck Me

American Girl