Someone once described Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as the “greatest bar band ever.’’ That’s a pretty accurate description. They’ve crafted out a career of spectacular steadiness that’s brought them to Hall of Fame level – they’re the Craig Biggio of classic rock. Nobody dislikes Petty and the Heartbreakers, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who calls them their favorite band.
Then again, given the euphoric reaction the Fenway crowd had to Petty and the Heartbreakers on Saturday night, I could be wrong. The band was the same great live act they’ve always been, mixing in some singles off their latest (and actually pretty good) album “Hypnotic Eye’’ with the greatest-hits tracks from their absurdly deep catalog. The new tracks, as usual, brought about a mass exodus from the stands to the cartoonishly long beer lines – this was a very drunk and, judging by the random clouds of pot smoke that drifted over the Park, very high crowd. It’s understandable, but it was a shame, since some of the new tracks (particularly the lovely and, well, appropriate “U Get Me High’’) would have fit in comfortably on any best-of album.
The crowd was there for the classics, though, and Petty, as usual, delivered. It has to be said that Fenway isn’t an ideal concert spot. “Wow, they need to turn the vocals up,’’ my fellow concert attendee said at least three times during the show, and she was right. At Fenway, I’ve noticed, some of the vocals get lost into the air and swallowed up by the bass – the same problem that happened at the two Springsteen shows in 2012, and a problem that really plagued Petty’s opener Steve Winwood. Ironic that the place described by John Updike as “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark’’ isn’t great place for lyrics themselves.
It hardly mattered, in the end; the crowd provided their own big backing vocals on the big singalongs like “Into the Great Wide Open,’’ “Free Falling,’’ “Refugee,’’ and “Running Down a Dream,’’ and the three-song encore of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,’’ “You Wreck Me’’ and “American Girl’’ was an ideal finale. The setlist was missing some of the adventurousness of previous shows – the 2008 show at the Garden, for example, featured a wonderful cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go’’ as well as the Wilburys hit “End of the Line’’ – but that’s a minor quibble. No one was complaining during the chorus of “Learning to Fly.’’
Special credit for Petty’s effectiveness also has to be given to the rest of the Heartbreakers. Mike Campbell remains one of the greatest live guitar players out there, delivering a night full of understated, bluesy masterwork, and Benmont Tench’s keyboards sung through every ancient molecule of the park. Steve Ferrone on the drums (described by Petty as the greatest musician he’d ever worked with) and Ron Blair on bass were just as effective. At 63, Petty’s voice hasn’t lost any of it’s color – it didn’t sound like he’d aged a day since the days of playing at the Paradise, a time Petty remembered fondly to the crowd.
A big chunk of that crowd couldn’t have been around in those late-1970s days. The Fenway audience was a testament to Petty’s enduring, consistent greatness, embracing at least six decades of life. There were plenty of concert veterans there with bleached-white beards, tie-dyed Petty tees (apparently they failed to see “PCU’’) and unfortunate ponytails, right alongside their mid-thirties sons and daughters and, in some occasions, a third generation of elementary-school aged Petty fan. One kid of 9 or 10 behind my concert companion and I, clad in an oversized concert tee, was on his feet the whole time and singing his heart out to every song, charming the whole row. Given the way Petty is going, you’d expect that the young fan could still be bringing his own kids to a Heartbreakers show in a few decades.