One of the myriad benefits of living in Southern California is the number of artists that launch their tours in San Diego. U2 has done so at least twice over the past couple decades, and last night Tom Petty pulled into Viejas Arena with Steve Winwood and they uncorked their 2014 tour. Fans were treated to an evening of consummate musicianship; both artists long ago attained their 10,000 hours of experience.
Winwood provided a deceivingly loose yet tight set of his classic solo and Traffic cuts. He stretched out nicely with “Dear Mr Fantasy” and “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Sprinkled through the set were a couple of his Spencer Davis hits, which were the songs that began to shape his career in the 1960s as one of the first British blue-eyed soul singers. Opening act time constraints sadly precluded favorites like “While You See A Chance” or “Walking in the Wind.” Winwood moved effortlessly from the keyboards of his B3 Hammond to the fretboard of his Fender guitar. His five piece backup band eschewed a bass player; Winwood’s dexterity at the organ allowed his feet to keep the bass line steady and his hands to weave the melody.
Both Rolling Stone and Billboard have recently used ‘cranky’ to describe Tom Petty. He doesn’t seem to mind the appellation; apparently there is a hand scrawled warning at his home studio ‘beware cranky hippie.’
Certainly the tracks on his new album, and especially those he showcased on the tour opening show, underscore his increasingly caustic view of the world. Even the joyful celebration of his early-career “American Girl” (last night’s show closer) contains more than a wisp of melancholy. The show opener certainly staked out his perspective. With Rickenbacker duly strapped on, Petty roared into “So You Want To Be a Rock and Roll Star.” When Roger McGuinn sang that song with the Byrds in the 60s, Petty heard it in Gainseville, Florida and knew that was the road he wanted to take. Decades later, he now more fully realizes the implications of that journey. As he stares down becoming 64 years of age in October, his current songs paint a picture of an America increasingly bifurcated into the tiny minority of the mega-wealthy and the rest of the country wondering what happened to the American vision.
Indeed, Petty pulled out the new “American Dream Plan B” as the evening’s third song. Bringing a new track that far forward in the setlist is ambitious. But the observations in these new lyrics crisply build on his themes of fading dreams, and Petty was going to get his message across early. Forming almost a suite, the next several songs outlined a vision of the American Everyman struggling to make ends meet:
- Into The Great Wide Open
- Forgotten Man
- I Won’t Back Down
- Free Fallin’
The making of the new album spanned at least three tours. Patty has been with Benmont Tench since they were teens in Gainesville. And with Mike Campbell and Ron Blair the unit has been essentially intact for four decades. Petty described during the Town Hall gathering on Sirius XM how he grabs snippets of inspiration whenever they land, hones that into a semi coherent resemblance of a song, and then brings the band into the studio. They sit in a circle with Petty at the center and he presents the new songs. Whereas Townshend does almost the same, Petty’s songs remain open to suggestion of tempo, rhythm and tone modification. Townshend’s pre-band demos are practically finished product; they comprise a tasty corner of my record collection. At some point Petty’s demos may provide a corresponding area.
“Power Drunk” from the new album observes that once a badge is pinned on a guy, be it a bouncer, a TSA agent or a President the guy’s self perception of authority is changed for the worse. Even Malibu resident Petty has encountered this rather bogus sense of authority from such badges. Petty apparently gets even more strident on a track being saved for the vinyl release of the new album. The track is called “Playing Dumb,” and takes aim at the Catholic Church and its followers who feel that recent financial settlements wipe the slate clean over the abuse scandal.
At Viejas there were no signs of opening night jitters. A cornucopia of guitars were strapped on over the course of the evening, even a baby blue Fender once sported by Winwood. Impressively, the audience included a bevy of the younger cohort, which bodes well for Petty’s longevity.
He will loop the country, returning to Southern California to finish the tour at the fabled Forum in Los Angeles, when he is at the infamous rock and roll age of 64.
Well after the venue’s curfew last night in San Diego, Petty finally delivered the set closing “American Girl.” It was a poignant bookend to the set’s opener, as McGuinn covered the song early in Petty’s career as a stamp of approval, or perhaps a passing of the torch. Petty wisely chose to leave the audience with the uplifting spirit of “American Girl;” even within that cranky old hippie hope springs eternal.