Heartbreaker: Tom Petty at the Lube

When Man of Few Words, Many Songs Tom Petty allowed himself a few words in praise of his since-forever band, The Heartbreakers, last night at — there’s just no way to get around saying this – Jiffy Lube Live, he introduced drummer Steve Ferrone as “the man who gets the job done.”

He could just as easily have been doing something he seems to detest: talking about himself.

Everyone knows you don’t go to Tom Petty for flash or invention. You to him for the thing he has, more than any other rocker of his generation, come to embody: excitement-free dependability. Since 1976, he’s rarely let more than a couple years go by without giving us another song or three that sounds just perfect on the radio of a car with the windows open. (It should’ve been Petty who eventually starting selling pickup trucks, not John Mellencamp, who despite sharing Petty’s greatest-hits approach to live performance, has at various points in his career appeared to suspect he was making art.) Petty has always made writing great — well, greatish — songs look easy. And last Christmas, an expansive box set compiling three decades of concert recordings made a strong case that TP and the HBs have earned a spot in the live rock band pantheon.

So a workmanlike 100-minute set like last night’s registers as a letdown: the same 17 or 18 songs in the same order as the night and the month before, with just enough unexceptional exceptions, like that cover of Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” to prove the rule. Patty has long evinced a Zen resignation: Even on the line, “You could stand me up at the gates of Hell / But I won’t back down,” he sounds like he just woke up. As a result, his best-loved material has neither lost urgency nor gained resonance as he’s aged (he’ll turn 60 in October). Same as it ever was, is how the songs feel.

Last night, he nestled four tunes from Mojo, the bluesy, live-in-the-studio new Heartbreakers product (“Running Man’s Bible” and the Led Zeppy “I Should Have Known It” were the two that went over best) deep inside a protective cocoon of a half-dozen weatherbeaten classics (“Listen to Her Heart,” “Learning to Fly,” “Refugee”) on either side. His greater interest in the new songs versus the old was palpable. I may have imagined the note of apology in his voice when he introduced 1991’s “King’s Highway” as “an album cut.”

The mulitgenerational crowd bellowed along the choruses of “Free Fallin’” (“I get a lot of requests from girls for this song,” Petty said) and “I Won’t Back Down, “ but Petty seemed determined to squander their enthusiasm. After rocking out an extended bridge, or turning a song over to the audience for a verse, instead of powering through one more ecstatic chorus, he’d just unceremoniously end the number. And for group of vets marching through the same set every night, the tween-song intervals felt longer than Peter Bogdanovich’s Petty doc Running Down a Dream. (Three hours, 59 minutes, since you asked.)

The most playful part of the night was the extended breakdown in, er, “Breakdown,” when Petty free-associated a few minutes of PG-rated come-ons in that sunburnt voice.

“Well, what can I say?” he punted later, introducing keyboardist Benmont Tench, a founding Heartbreaker with whom he’s been performing music literally since both men were children. I dunno, Tom: How about anything?

A slightly abbreviated version of this review appears today on Click Track.

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