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Like an explicit scene from a nightmare, Steve Winwood was playing “Higher Love” on a video monitor screen while I stood in a long line of disgruntled women, drunken, impatient, waiting to piss out several 8 dollar beers and/or shitty liquor. I was wearing knee socks and standing next to my young/cute/cheerleader-for-Jesus sister (It’s always good to remain near the young and cute) when some beer-bellied old farts—practically caterwauling at one another, might I add—sauntered up, stating explicitly, “Girl, you just can’t wear those knee socks around us. We’re Catholic. It ain’t fair.” Smiling eruditely, smooth as ever, I grabbed my sisters hand, walking away, hollering behind me, “Well, sir, I grew up Catholic, so I guess I’m entitled” and thus we forgot to use the bathroom, instead favoring to soberly buy a five dollar soda pop and catch the last song in Steve Winwood’s set.
What would entice me to enter this hellhole of a universe? I’ll let you in on a little secret. I have a soft spot in my heart for weirdo forty-somethings and drunken youth. Especially when mixing music, rednecks, and Tom Petty smack dab in the middle of Indiana, the result is something campier than dressing out for The Rocky Horror Picture Show . And more drunk, too.
Most of mainstream American culture loves Tom Petty. Most people I know who are genuinely interested in music think Tom Petty should take a gun to the head, or at least, you know, retire, if they deign to have an opinion of Tom Petty whatsoever. However, even though his lyrics sometimes suck and even though, as a band, they sometimes cheat and use same/similar guitar parts, etc.; I do mandate that you give Mr. Petty and his Heartbreakers a, well, break. After all, you’re not paying for the art, or some funky grooves, or a look—you’re paying for the performance. Think about it. You go to see Radiohead in concert and expect to be wowed by the artistic merit of their music, perhaps stare avidly at Johnny Greenwood’s guitar prowess, maybe even pretend you know all of the words to “Karma Police” cause’ you know there’s no way in hell they’ll play “Creep.” I bet you leave feeling more artistically fulfilled (whether this is a placebo effect or not, I’ll leave up to you). You go to see Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 in concert and you expect to feel a little out of place, at least if you are not African, moving your rump in a painfully suburban-dance-to-the-music movement. You leave with aching muscles, tired and happy, wishing you could move your ass like the back-up singer on the stage (or at least, that was my experience). I mean really, no one goes to see the Sounds because they’re legitimately good, people just want to sing along to “Living In America,” that, and check out whether or not their lead singer is hott.
Why do Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put on such a great performance, even though they are old and they haven’t had a decent hit in around a decade?
Imagine this: Tom Petty walks onstage, older now since the last time you saw him, more defined lines and wrinkles, wearing a purple velveteen jacket and looking glassy-eyed—he’s probably more wasted than you. He opens with “Rescue Me,” then proceeds to play through most of his repertoire of hits as the sky grows dark and the audience pettily pretends to play hard to please. He’s not dark; he’s not handsome, but he does have that way of grinning wickedly when the audience screams the lyrics to his songs ranging from “Free Falling” to Breakdown” to “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and even lesser hits including “Straight Into Darkness.” He doesn’t disappoint his Indiana audience, stating after the last chords of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “I’ve been waiting two years to play that song here.” Of course he has, and equally unsurprisingly, he closes his encore with “American Girl,” because it’s 12:05 on the fourth of July and there are fireworks off in the distance.
A Tom Petty concert can be like a big campfire sing-a-long among people of all ages. It can be a bunch of old rock concert veterans playing air guitar and old-man moshing. It can be a bevy of innocent young boys singing about Mary Jane and wondering how hot she was. It can be college girls slutting themselves out…with their mothers. It can be fun; it can be campy; it can be explicit and innocent in the same moment. I once read that Elvis Presley survived to play in Vegas, not only because he had a great marketing manager, but also because he could feel out an audience and give them exactly what they wanted at any given moment. Tom Petty has that same talent: After four decades, he maintains relevance, leaving Tom himself, his band, his music, anything but ordinary. I’m sure the Angela Hayes inside of us is more than a little jealous.