Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers embrace a fighting spirit at Fenway
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” is a slinky little tune, winding and weaving through as the story’s hero, Eddie, barrels down the road and into the unknown in search of his dream. It was a major hit, but it’s not a typical one. There’s an obvious hook on the chorus, but the story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, or a sad one. It’s open-ended, leaving the possibility for life to keep moving and never pretending to know what’s coming next.
Petty worked “Into the Great Wide Open” early into his set with the Heartbreakers at Fenway Park on Saturday night, letting that story of Eddie and his guitar suck in an already ecstatic crowd and keep the night feeling like a sublime escape from reality. It was a perfect night, with the temperatures mild and a nice breeze blowing through the Red Sox’ home, and the Heartbreakers did everything they could to make the century old stadium feel as much like an organic music venue as a baseball park. It was a testament to the band’s strengths on stage.
They got a fantastic assist from Steve Winwood, who’s hour-long opening set saw the English singer sounding devoted to his own songs, ranging from his days as a teenager in the Spencer Davis Group to his later solo hits, while dedicating the majority of his set to his work with Traffic. “We’re playing vintage songs with a modern twist,” he told the crowd midway through. It set the stage for the Heartbreakers’ own stamp on that art, blending new songs with the old and keeping everything sounding lively.
They came out with the twin blasts of “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” setting the mood and keeping the tempo ramped up for an already ardent crowd. That enthusiasm picked the band up even as it was soaring, elevating the bigger hits — “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’” — into massive sing-alongs that nearly drowned out Petty’s voice. The unifying ability of his songs is never more apparent than when they’re played live, and it’s a testament to the band that the only people who seemed more excited for the music than the fans were the six Heartbreakers.
That spirit was most apparent on the newer material. The four Hypnotic Eyes songs that stepped into the setlist sounded as if they’d been at home in Petty’s show for years. “American Dream Plan B” was even more the raucous garage rocker on stage than it is on LP. “U Get Me High” became another sing-along to rival the radio hits. But the Heartbreakers really got to strut their chops on the epic “Shadow People,” slithering along with a menacing force that broke through as Mike Campbell’s last solo bloomed into the final chorus, with Petty and the band bringing it home.
The Heartbreakers’ ability, of course, was never in doubt, nor should it have been. There are few bands working today that can move with the agility and toughness of Petty’s group, and they got perhaps their best spotlight on “I Should Have Known It.” Petty put his guitar down and turned into an old-school bandleader while Campbell and company worked their blues magic, twisting that Mojo riff, reeling back and then exploding in a wave of overdriven guitars. Regardless of the setting and the inflated crowd, the Heartbreakers’ capacity to work the music surpasses the typical boundaries of a stadium show.
They filled the park, of course, on the strength of Petty’s songs. And Petty is versatile enough to play with his catalog, getting quiet and keeping the audience rapt. He stripped down the anthemic “Rebels” to the bare-bones on an acoustic guitar and minimal backing, and kept the band muted for “Angel Dream” and a lilting “Learning to Fly.”
But the five song sprint to the finish — “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” to end the main set, with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl” in the encore — encapsulated all of Petty’s finest points as a showman. He’s written urgent anthems and plaintive asides, sometimes spinning both within the same song, never really writing a lemon and never completely content to stick to the template. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” uses complex rhythms and relies on different textures than a typical rocker. “Refugee” has a restless spirit that sounds as desperate in 2014 as it did in 1979. “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is an anthem built for a car stereo screaming down a highway. He can do it all when he wants.
And that’s what keeps the music relevant. That fighting spirit has kept his new music vital and his old songs sounding as fresh as when they were young. The dedication that he and his Heartbreakers bring to the music keeps the performance dynamic and keeps fans coming back. And when all this comes together, it makes for a night that will on in memory long past the show’s two hours.
It did have to end, though. After a thank-you to Boston radio for playing “American Girl” in 1976 when few others in the country would, the band ran circles around their first single, another song whose main character takes off to break free. Whether or not she makes it is never clear, but that’s the mystery of another unlikely hit. Petty and the Heartbreakers haven’t stopped traveling and searching for that dream, working to fend off reality long enough to make another connection.
It’s why they keep filling the seats and it’s why the listeners, desperate to make that same connection, keep filtering in and then wandering back out into the night, changed just enough by the music to not worry about what the ending might eventually be.
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com