BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
It may not be a fashionable persona circa 2002, but Tom Petty has always
been a hippie idealist, even if his music eschews the most popular '60s
cliches (hello, Dave Matthews and all of you jam bands) in favor much
simpler, cleaner and janglier sounds.
Musically, Petty and his longtime backing band, the Heartbreakers, rarely
offer any significant surprises in concert. Their solid two-hour set
Wednesday night at a packed United Center was much like their last three or
four visits to Chicago: simple, clean and jangly as ever, full of heartfelt
tunes about standing your ground and not backing down, but with the added
edge of Petty having declared war on the music business as usual.
The laconic blond rocker opened his set with "The Last DJ," the title
track of his recent album, and a withering critique of the soulless nature
of corporate rock radio that has won him the wrath of the National
Association of Broadcasters and many radio programmers. Further on, he
delivered several strong attacks on the major label system and corporate
sponsorship of rock bands.
"Pepsi Cola is a really good soft drink, but I can't imagine how it can
help me with my music," he said. (Price of a small Pepsi at the United
Center concession stands: $3.50.) "We are brought to you by you."
Yes, there are ambiguities--some might say hypocrisies--in his stance.
Petty records for one of the biggest, baddest corporate conglomerates there
is, and while embarking on noble crusades to keep the price of his albums
and concert tickets low, he has also benefitted from the very hype machine
(press, radio and retail promotion that we all wind up paying for in the
end) that he loudly decries.
But few rockers of his stature are addressing these issues at all. Bono
is happy to discuss AIDS and the World Bank, but try asking him about U2's
ticket prices, and suddenly his opinions become very slippery indeed. And
the core of Petty's message is honest, timeless and always worth hearing:
It's the music that matters most, and to hell with all the rest.
To that end, the Florida native performed on a spartan stage with his
top-notch band (special props as always to the astoundingly colorful
keyboardist Benmont Tench, fiery lead guitarist Mike Campbell and powerful
drummer Steve Ferrone--though I still miss the jagged rawness Stan Lynch
lent to the proceedings) delivering spirited renditions of many of his
enduring favorites: "The Waiting," the 1979 nugget "Shadow of Doubt (A
Complex Kid)," "A Woman in Love" and his killer cover of the Byrds' "Feel a
Whole Lot Better."
There were also draggy moments. Aside from the title track, many of the
tunes on the new album are mired in slow tempos and powered by hesitant
acoustic guitar. They lack the propulsion of Petty's best rockers or the
droning melodies of his psychedelic ballads, and they gained little in live
It was a noble sentiment for the star to pay tribute to his late friend
George Harrison. But the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" remains an
unbelievably lame ditty. And no matter how hard Tom tries, "Learning to Fly"
will never be as effective as a crowd sing-along as the irresistible "Free
So no, Petty and the Heartbreakers did not change the world Wednesday
night. They didn't reach some amazing new artistic peak, and they didn't
rewrite the rules for arena rock. But they didn't back down, either,
sticking for the most part to what they have always done best. And sometimes