There’s an old concert-going axiom that goes something like this: If you’re seeing an older, more established act, you’re going to have to endure a half-dozen (or more) songs from the album they’re promoting in order to hear the crowd favorites. We’ve all had to do it. You want to hear Neil Young play “Cinnamon Girl”? You’re first going to have to listen to eight tracks from his latest vanity project. You want to hear U2 crush another rendition of “One”? Not until you listen politely as they trot out the toothless collection of songs they just released. These new records are often ones we haven’t heard, haven’t bought, or haven’t connected with on the same level that we have with the oldies. It’s a tradeoff that’s just about as old as rock ‘n’ roll: You wanna hear the hits? Fine. But you’re gonna hear these new songs whether you like them or not.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers know this drill as well as any band that has been recording and touring for 30-plus years. But Petty, who has released 13 albums with the Heartbreakers (and three “solo” albums that usually feature most of his bandmates), tends to give zero fucks about music-industry conventions. So he’s decided on his current tour — in support of the band’s latest record, Hypnotic Eye — to scuttle the notion that he needs to force-feed new music to his audience. And it actually hurts his show, because Hypnotic Eye is the best collection of songs Petty & Co. have put out in more than 20 years. Yet he only seems interested in playing the standards.
During a taut, 20-song set at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, Petty delivered all of the sing-along crowd-pleasers one would expect. He nailed monster hits like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Refugee.” He gave the vocals over to the capacity crowd during “Learning to Fly.” He ceded the spotlight to his longtime lead guitarist — the criminally underrated Mike Campbell — for the last few songs of the night. Campbell’s searing solos on classics like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “You Wreck Me,” and “American Girl” dominated the back end of the show.
Petty was in great spirits all night. Bouncing around the stage in a blousey purple shirt and bleached jeans tucked into tan suede boots, the 63-year-old was quick to bow and blow kisses to the audience (pretty much after every song). He joked that he planned to play so long that the parents in the crowd had “better call the babysitter.” (“There’s a teenage boy in your house right now,” he added.) He praised the Garden as the “greatest rock ‘n’ roll venue on earth.”
But you would barely know that he was there to promote a new record — the only Billboard No. 1 album he and the Heartbreakers have ever recorded, in fact.
The band played just four tracks from Hypnotic Eye, but it was during those songs that they were at their best. There was an urgency to the sludgy “American Dream Plan B” and angry “Forgotten Man” that wasn’t heard elsewhere all night. “You Get Me High” is probably the closest thing to a Heartbreakers classic on the album; it played like a long-forgotten deep cut that seemed to energize the band. And Hypnotic Eye‘s textured closer, “Shadow People,” was re-imagined as a slowed-down blues stomp that saw Petty and Campbell trading guitar solos.
At one point in the show, before tearing into a version of the somehow-obscure 1981 single “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me),” Petty acknowledged the question of how he chooses a setlist when he has a catalog filled with hits.
“People often ask me why I never play this or I never play that,” he said as he slipped a guitar over his shoulder. “Well, we’re gonna play this one because I effin’ want to.”
Nobody seemed to go home disappointed, but the show could’ve benefited from a few more executive decisions like that one.
Worth Mentioning: Yes, he said “effin’.” He added: “Notice that I didn’t swear. It’s a family show.”
Worth Mentioning Part II: A five-song acoustic interlude in the middle of the set included a ballad version of 1985 arena anthem “Rebels.” It was one of the show’s finest moments.
Random Notebook Dump: Heartbreakers multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston yawned twice during the Petty classic “Free Fallin’.”