Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Xcel, 6/22/10

Categories: Last Night
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Photos by Steve Cohen
Now entering his fifth decade in the music biz, Tom Petty has reached that enviable point in his career where he could be easily forgiven for resting on his laurels and calling it a day. He'll turn 60 later this year and has already sold 60 million records and been inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame -- suffice it to say his musical bucket list isn't exactly robust at this point. So it's refreshing that even with nothing left to prove Petty and his longtime backing band the Heartbreakers unleashed Mojo on an unsuspecting public a few weeks back. Clocking in at 15 tracks and over an hour in length, Mojo's the work of a group of old hands more than comfortable in their own skin, a swampy and bluesy affair that's pretty much the antithesis of Petty's most popular albums (the pristine and sparkly combo of Full Moon Fever and Into the Great Wide Open).

While it's far from my cup of tea -- I prefer my Petty set to a bouncy Byrds-ian jangle rather than besotted with B.B. King -- Mojo does make for an exquisite showcase for lead guitarist Mike Campbell, a true six-string beast let off the leash on record all too rarely. So the question headed into Petty and Co.'s big gig at the Xcel Energy Center was just how much Mojo's meandering melodies would dominate the evening or whether they would still favor the old standbys sure to satisfy the fans who had shelled out big bucks to see them (the cheapest seats in the house ran $63 after service charges, primo seats topped out over $175).

Wisely the band found a comfortable middle ground, playing the hits from every chapter of Petty's storied career, while pausing to take a detour into Mojo's muddy musical waters on a four-song mini-set that lasted for about 25 minutes about two-thirds of the way into the set. At this point the "new" guy in the band is drummer Steve Ferone, and even he's been around for 16 years. The lived-in chemistry of the six-piece band was palpable from the opening chords of "Listen to Her Heart" right on through to the final ringing note of "American Girl," but while their sound was never less than tight the band's stage presence left something to be desired.

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Photos by Steve Cohen
Perhaps this is an unfair gripe to have with a band whose members will soon be eligible for AARP discounts, but it has to be stated that all of the Heartbreakers with the exception of harmony vocalist Scott Thurston appeared to be mostly joyless automatons on stage. There's a fine line between workmanlike precision and seeming bored, and lead guitarist Mike Campbell often found himself on the wrong side of that line in the early part of the set, although his stage presence seemed to liven and his face actually broke its inexpressive mask mold over the show's second half.

As for Petty, he appeared amiable but dazed. He indulged in no banter beyond the rare perfunctory utterance ("Thanks so much," "We love playing music for you") and not once acknowledged what city he was actually playing in (I, for one, am uncertain he knew). He did, however, playfully shimmy whenever cut loose from his rhythm guitar duties and clearly enjoyed his rare turns on lead (the raw guttural solo he played to close out "Last Dance with Mary Jane" was a highlight of the night).

The band may not have been in high spirits, but the well-lubricated crowd definitely was, with nearly the whole of the audience on floor remaining on its feet for the full two hours Petty was on stage. With the smell of weed rampant in the air from the jump and plenty of Bic-flipping signs of approval throughout, the near capacity crowd was clearly having a good time whether or not the band shared their unbridled enthusiasm. I was reminded once again how powerful a force the crowd can be at arena shows as the impact of nearly 20,000 voices singing in unison transformed structurally modest songs like the eternal classic "Free Falling" into a spine-tingling and epic experience and made a slowed-down gospel-tinged take on "Learning to Fly" the highlight of the night by holding down the chorus while Petty sang a different vocal counter melody. Petty and the Heartbreakers may have brought their B game, but the fans were A all the way.

Setlist:

Listen to Her Heart
You Don't Know How it Feels
Won't Back Down
Free Falling
Oh Well
Last Dance With Mary Jane
Driving Down to Georgia
Breakdown

(Start of Mojo Mini-Set)
Jefferson Jericho Blues
First Flash of Freedom
Running Man's Blues
I Should've Known It

Learning to Fly
Don't Come Around Here No More
Refugee

Encore Break:

Running Down a Dream
Mystic Eyes (Them cover)
American Girl

Total set time approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes

For more photos, see our complete slideshow by Steve Cohen.
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