Show Review + Setlist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, St. Louis, Thursday, August 7

Aug 8, 2008 at 2:50 am

Better than: Watching Tom Petty videos on YouTube.

Tom Petty could run for president – and win – in November.

That’s the conclusion I came to sometime during the nearly two-hour Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater last night. Fans cheered wildly and reverentially at anything the 57-year-old rocker did – whether he was destroying set opener “You Wreck Me,” thanking the crowd profusely for its kindness or simply standing still. Yes, at one point Petty just stood onstage between songs, and the nearly sold-out crowd gave him a reception fit for royalty.

To Petty’s credit, at times it felt like he was campaigning, what with the numerous presidential gestures (hands clasped together above his head, arms spread wide, frequent crowd waves) and numerous (and seemingly humble) offers of gratitude for the crowd’s generous reception. But of course, he’s already the king of American rock & rollers, a consummate professional with a staggeringly cohesive – and extensive -- back catalog.

As expected, such hits dominated the set list. Of particular note was “Breakdown”; annoying audience sing-along aside, the vamping bass and spiraling guitar melody were intoxicating and seedy. “I Won’t Back Down” and “Refugee” were fist-pumping displays of defiance, while “Don’t Come Around Here No More” was a pounding psychedelic spectacle which ended in a mess of strobe lights. “Listen to Her Heart” remained a pretty, homespun jangle, and Wildflowers’ “Honey Bee” was a nice surprise. The version last night was sticky with swampy blues and heavy with romantic promise, the type of song to play on humid summer nights while drinking cheap beer with good friends. Highway Companion’s “Saving Grace” continues to prove itself a modern classic, ending in a loud array of jammy, psychedelic squalls and Benmont Tench freaking out via piano improvisations.

Petty’s long-time compatriots the Heartbreakers were essential parts of the night’s success. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell is simply astounding, a musician who makes playing the guitar look easy, who shreds and plays as if his hands were liquid. Scott Thurston handled the blowsy harmonica on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” with aplomb. Even the rhythm section – bassist Ron Blair and drummer Steve Ferrone – was steady and unflashy; in short, just what the music needs.

Still, despite the celebratory crowd and mood, what stood out during this show was a palpable sense of mortality. Rock & roll is inherently invincible, but vulnerability seemed to creep out from the jovial nonchalance Petty cultivated. For starters, he strapped on an acoustic guitar to play the Traveling Wilburys’ song “End of the Line.” Its rallying cry of “I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive” brought cheers from the audience, but felt underscored by much more personal and meaningful tones. Highlight “Learning to Fly” was also stripped-down and sparse; Thurston and Blair contributed tasteful backing vocals, Ferrone used shakers for understated ambience and Tench contributed plenty of pretty piano. Petty also played the solo cut “A Face in the Crowd,” a mellow and melancholic rumination which haunted.

There wasn’t any real reason for sensing this mortality, either. (Slower tempos on some of the older songs aside, which is completely understandable.) Petty began the night wearing a smart black jacket, which he eventually shed for a mustard-colored shirt and trademark black vest. His blonde hair – so perfectly swept that at times it felt like an invisible wind machine was blowing it, like magic – and matching facial hair didn’t seem any grayer or thinner since the last time around. Plus, the band’s main set was a whopping 85 minutes long – and during that segment’s closer, “Refugee,” Petty still had the energy to stalk the front of the stage like a stealth, graceful leopard.

After an appropriately scorched “Running Down a Dream,” Petty and co. launched into an extended version of Them’s “Gloria.” While odd for a band of this magnitude to use one of three encore slots for a cover, the familiarity was appreciated; the crowd sang along mightily, as if a gospel-soul revival had broken out.

I skedaddled to the parking lot while listening to (and singing along with) perennial show-closer “American Girl.” Along with the wiry strums, I saw couples reach for each other’s hands, moms dancing like, well, moms, and plenty of exuberance from nearly everyone I saw. I thought about the purity of the song, the simple descriptions of an American girl: wide-eyed and optimistic and looking beyond her world, but still haunted by could-have-beens. It’s the perfect late-summer song, when romantic regrets creep in with autumn’s shadows, when the threat of colder weather and hibernation looms even on a humid night like last night. Still, Petty’s delivery and the spring-loaded chords of the song swell with hope; it’s ultimately a celebration instead of an admission of regrets.

On this night, it was the perfect song. And so I walked out of the venue smiling, with a spring in my step, wishing I was someone’s American girl – but not sad that I wasn’t.

Petty in ’08.

Critic’s notebook: --I have three main quibbles: *The number of extended jams at the end of songs, while wholly entertaining and awe-inspiring, ate away time that could’ve been used for more songs. See #2. *Songs missing I would have liked to have heard: “You Got Lucky,” “The Waiting,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” “I Need to Know,” “Here Comes My Girl” *Why a cover of Them’s “Gloria” in the encore, when Petty has such a diverse, deep back catalog? See #2.

--I missed Steve Winwood’s set entirely, because I was stuck in traffic on the Page Extension. (Not Traffic. Get it?) Seriously, I’ve never run into a jam there; did people finally discover it’s open? I did hear him play “Gimme Some Lovin’” as I waited in my car; marching band flashbacks ensued.

Personal bias: --Not gonna lie, I was rocking out pretty hard and singing along, so much so that Post-Dispatch critic Dan Durcholz (who was sitting next to me) I think was super amused and commented that he wished I had my camera, so he could have taken a picture of me dancing.

--Before “Even the Losers,” Petty introduced the song as one he wrote in 1979 for Damn the Torpedoes. “That’s when I was a teenager!” the suburban mom behind me said. I didn’t have the heart to admit to her that I was born that year.

--Speaking of suburban moms: I wonder of all if the drunk parents at the show were scarier than drunk Rage Against the Machine fans at Lollapalooza? There was some serious mom-rocking going on; lots of flailing limbs and double-fisting of beers going on in my section.

Setlist: “You Wreck Me” “Listen to Her Heart” “I Won’t Back Down” “Even the Losers” “Free Fallin’” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” “End of the Line” (Traveling Wilburys) “Breakdown” “Saving Grace” “A Face in the Crowd” “Honey Bee” “Learning to Fly” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” “Refugee”

Encore: “Running Down a Dream” “Gloria” (Them cover) “American Girl”

-- Annie Zaleski