"I'm gonna leave you and go
on up to Chicago!" Tom Petty sang, reworking the lyrics to "Baby Please
Don't Go" at the Vic Theatre on Sunday.
It was an appropriate choice for the first song in the first show of a
sold-out five-night stand, and not just because Petty is playing Muddy
Waters' adopted hometown.
The blues classic set the tone for an ambitious two-hour, 45-minute
performance, laying out Petty's plan for this special extended stay at an
The Vic is the Heartbreakers' laboratory and woodshed. The goal: honing a
set of the material they love to listen to on the tour bus, illustrating
their roots in the sounds that preceded rock 'n' roll, with the possible
plan of recording them live at Chess Studio.
There was a hint of grumbling from a few of the fans around me: In a
26-song set, Petty played only a handful of his greatest hits and concert
standards. But after four decades on the road, he has certainly earned the
right to indulge himself.
This was a rare opportunity to see one of the best arena acts in rock up
close and personal, stretching out, jamming and taking chances that it could
never take in the enormodomes. And the group delivered a truly unique
Playing "name that tune" was a challenge to even the most ardent rock
historians and dedicated Petty fanatics as the famously shaggy-haired,
49-year-old bandleader dug deep for obscure pre-rock nuggets and overlooked
gems from his own catalog.
The most inspired cover choices included Alvin Robinson's "Down Home
Girl" (which the Rolling Stones covered in 1965); JJ Cale's "I'd Like to
Love You Baby"; the rampaging garage-rocker "I'm Crying" by the Animals;
Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" (done in an unusual acoustic arrangement), and
Chuck Berry's "Carol" (performed as a full-on rave-up that kicked off a
From his own trick bag, Petty pulled out "Angel Dream (No. 4)" from the
"She's the One" soundtrack, the haunting "Blue Sunday" (one of the deeper
tracks from "The Last DJ"), and the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care."
There were also several "mystery selections" (I have no idea where "Black
Leather Woman" came from, but it was a killer tune) and some impressive new
songs, among them a lovely ballad titled "Melinda" that the Heartbreakers
stretched into a full-blown acoustic jam.
After Bob Dylan's current touring ensemble, there is no more fluid,
subtle, or impressive roots-rock band on the scene today. As they've been
through much of his career, Petty's secret weapons were the amazingly
versatile keyboardist Benmont Tench and longstanding lead guitarist Mike
Campbell, who was as impressive firing off leads on his Les Paul during the
louder numbers as he was while finger-picking an electric mandolin during
the 12-song acoustic set.
This is not to slight the other Heartbreakers. Newcomer Scott Thurston is
a sensitive third guitarist, expert at carving out unique spaces between
Petty and Campbell as well as singing spot-on backing vocals and playing
spirited harmonica. And the band's original bassist, Ron Blair (who replaced
the late Howie Epstein), and drummer Steve Ferrone formed a truly impressive
rhythm section that was able to stop and shift gears on a dime with one wave
of Petty's arm.
The boss is clearly proud of this band, and he took an obvious joy in
putting it through its paces onstage at the Vic in a radically different
style and setting than the show he presented at the United Center in
Whether or not this was the show that Petty fans expected, they left
having witnessed an inspired, energetic, revealing and consistently
thrilling performance--a gift from one of rock's greats.