Live: Tom Petty Looks Like an Anorexic Monkey, Sounds Like a Champ at Madison Square Garden


Another time at MSG

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Buddy Guy
Madison Square Garden
July 28, 2010

Tom Petty looks like an anorexic monkey, and his voice is so nasal it makes Bob Dylan sound like a death-metal grunter. But he’s a hell of a songwriter, and the Heartbreakers are one of the two or three best bands in rock, particularly in concert. They’ve retained almost the same lineup since 1975–the only changes have been in the drum and bass slots, plus the addition of multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston at the dawn of the ’90s. Their 2009 Live Anthology, which bundled recordings from as far back as 1980 and as recent as 2006 into what felt like one astonishing show, provided ample evidence of their power. And their new album Mojo hammers the lesson home, having been recorded more or less live in the studio. Petty and company are pushing Mojo hard; if you bought a ticket to Wednesday night’s nearly sold-out show, you got a free download of the album, and they offered a solid encapsulation of the record onstage, playing five of its 15 tracks in a row mid-set.

That’s right, five new songs in a row, one of which–“First Flash of Freedom”–is a nearly seven-minute, drifting psychedelic jam that sounds like the Grateful Dead might have, if they’d ever had a functioning rhythm section. Mojo‘s a garagey blues album, full of crunching riffs and stinging solos from lead guitarist Mike Campbell, who was a dominant voice at the Garden; Petty called him the co-leader when making introductions, and that was pretty accurate.

The audience stayed with Petty through the new material, their enthusiasm never flagging. It’s likely that many attendees already had the new record; the dudes next to me definitely did, and were as pleased by a scorching version of “I Should Have Known It” as I was. The first hour of the show was for the most part a greatest-hits run-through, beginning with “Listen To Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down” and a massive, unprovoked crowd singalong on “Free Fallin’.” As a fan of Petty’s punchy and sometimes mean early material, it was a little strange to watch people swaying and singing along to the slow songs with such fervor. The band began to build up steam with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” another singalong on “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” and a cranked-up version of “Honey Bee,” from 1994’s Wildflowers, that helped set the tone for the harder blues-rock to follow. The last song before the Mojo mini-set was an extended, jammy version of “Breakdown,” which drove the all-ages crowd wild. (I saw kids under 10 and an almost impossibly dirty old hippie wearing his counterculture appearance like a Halloween costume, given that tickets to this gig were in the $150 range after Ticketmaster fees).

After the last of the new songs–the aforementioned “I Should Have Known It,” which approaches Led Zeppelin II power in its final stretch–it was singalong time again with “Learning to Fly,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and an extended version of “Refugee,” followed by a brief encore of “Running Down a Dream” and “American Girl.” The whole set fit together seamlessly, new songs sitting comfortably alongside Petty’s deep catalog of car-radio classics.

Buddy Guy’s hour-long opening set was even more raucous Chicago blues. Guy is one of those players who leaves other guitarists with their jaws hanging open, unleashing explosions of distorted, almost detuned notes like a cross between B.B. King and Gang of Four’s Andy Gill. His florid vocals give his music even more power; songs like “Leave My Girl Alone” and “When My Left Eye Jumps” leap from a depressive near-murmur to an agonized howl and back again. He blasted through his own songs (“Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues,” “Love Her with a Feeling,” “Slippin’ In”), blues classics (“Hoochie Coochie Man,” “She’s Nineteen Years Old,” “Drowning On Dry Land,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You”) and some stunts, closing the hour with affectionate stylistic tributes to John Lee Hooker, Eric Clapton (in both Cream and “Slowhand” modes) and Jimi Hendrix. The fratboy in front of me was looking Guy up on Wikipedia as he played; I hope he came away converted.