22 June 2008: Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
When I was in sixth grade, you could get school folders that had album cover art on them. Slick glossy things die-cut as if an LP were coming out the top of a record sleeve. I had a handful of them, but the two I remember most clearly are Rush's Signals and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Long After Dark. I don't know that I was completely aware of who either of those bands were necessarily. I knew and liked their music and all, but I was only 12. I came to really love both of those bands to varying degrees as time passed and my musical tastes continued to evolve. I have seen Rush multiple times over the years, but until this week, I had never seen Tom Petty in concert. So now my wife and I can add him to the list of icon artists we have seen live, putting his name alongside folks like Prince, The Police, and U2.
Steve Winwood warmed up the crowd for Petty, and I don't know that I've ever seen the pavilion so packed for the opening act before. Maybe it had something to do with the weather, but I'd like to think it had more to do with the fact that it was Steve Winwood doing the performing. He played a great set. Where most opening acts seem to be relegated to 45 minutes, Winwood played for just over an hour and hit all the right high points: songs like "Higher Love" for my wife and the Spencer Davis Group hit he co-wrote, "Gimme Some Lovin'", closed the set. But for me, it was hearing one of my all-time favorite songs performed live: "Can't Find My Way Home", written by Winwood during the short life of the supergroup Blind Faith, that satisfied my fix.
Torrential rains plagued us at Blossom once again, just as they did two years ago. But, like then, we had pavilion seats and were spared the soaked-to-the-bone experience of the poncho-coated throngs huddled on wet blankets up on the hill. And when Tom Petty took the stage decked out in violet crushed velvet jacket with his gray-on-blonde full beard and long straight hair, he looked like Jesus Christ presiding over the coolest tent revival ever.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are cashing in on their stellar Super Bowl halftime show with this tour, and we were happy to oblige them. Much like The Police's reunion tour last year, this was essentially a greatest hits trip through the back catalog. The undiscovered gem on the setlist was an Echo B-side called "Sweet William". This garage rock blues stomper beautifully illustrated the strength of the band and just why the core of the group has backed everyone through the years, from Dylan on his True Confessions Tour to Johnny Cash on the Grammy-winning American II album, Unchained.
After treating the crowd to the Traveling Wilbury's "End of the Line" and the Full Moon Fever deep-cut, "A Face in the Crowd", the last half of the main set unspooled a half-dozen killer songs from Petty's catalog. "Learning to Fly" was slowed to a near-acoustic crawl, taking it to a simultaneously darker yet communal place where the crowd was able to carry the vocals for extended periods. Retaining its psychedelic edge, "Don't Come Around Here No More" lived up to expectations as my favorite Tom Petty song. And the main set-closing "Refugee" bristled with all the fire this Damn the Torpedoes nugget did when originally released almost 30 years ago. The encore of "Runnin' Down a Dream" began a perfect nightcap, followed by Petty's extended storytelling riff in the middle of "Gloria" and the raw energy of 1977's "American Girl". This tour may have been a cash-grab, but it was well-deserved, and I can hardly fault him given the quality of the show.
Tom Petty's fan base defies genre or categorization. I knew his music in middle school when I was listening to rock and pop on WMMS, when I was in early high school and listening to hard rock and hair bands and metal, and when I was in late high school and college and listening to alternative and new wave. Petty's music was always there. Always applicable. Always accepted. And the music remains viable even today, and I'll proudly stand and testify.
"Oh, yeah. Alright. Take it easy, baby. Make it last all night..."
(All photos by Adam and Tracy Besenyodi.)