2008 / Music

Tom Petty Performs Like Classic-Rock Jukebox

Petty, Heartbreakers Shuffle Through Four ’80s Hits

PHOENIX — Halftime shows, like football games, represent attempts to orchestrate the unknown. What we see on the field is the product of hours of preparation in which sound levels are adjusted, lights tweaked and pyrotechnics timed. Every happening is meticulously designed to work like clockwork so that when the big moment arrives, no last-minute problems occur.

Photo: CBS

Photo: CBS

Once the lights turn on, however, you’re on your own — whether you’re a quarterback or a rock star. You try to stick to the game plan, but of course, nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan. That is, unless you’re Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

At the Super Bowl XLII halftime show on Sunday night, Petty and his longtime backing band tore through a handful of their greatest hits like they were a classic-rock jukebox. The four songs — all monster singles from Petty’s ’80s heyday — were such note-perfect recreations of the studio versions it was as if someone had put a coin in the jukebox slot the moment before the lights went up at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. There were no surprise guests, no wardrobe malfunctions and no real risk-taking. There were just catchy, beloved rock chestnuts capable of evoking memories.

Playing on top of a stage designed to look like Petty’s logo — a flying V guitar piercing a red valentine — the now-bearded singer-songwriter and his dark-suited bandmates seemed nervously excited, but unfazed by the fact that they were probably playing for the largest audience (both those in attendance and at home) of their lives. These guys are rock veterans after all and earned their plentiful gray hairs long ago by rising to the challenge for important gigs.

Looking increasingly like the grisly Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band, Petty was the quarterback of the ensemble and directed his boys like the set was a drive down field. Drummer Steve Ferrone kicked off the show by hammering on his snare drum to propel the jangle-pop of “American Girl.” Strumming Rickenbacker guitars, Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell conjured all the song’s Byrds-like charm as the crowd roared like they were seeing the Beatles at Shea Stadium.

The ecstatic mood cooled some with the midtempo, chorus-heavy “Won’t Back Down,” but the group continued to sell the song and even seemed to drop a verse or two so as to keep the energy level from sagging too much. Campbell played sonorous slide guitar like the consummate technician that he is, but his soulful style seemed lost in the macho mania of the moment.

The appearance of “Free Fallin’,” Petty’s biggest hit, reclaimed some of the intensity, despite its sluggish tempo. Now playing a power-blue Telecaster, Petty’s strained but impassioned crooning of the song’s famous chorus was a dose of memorable ear candy capable of enticing those headed to the bathroom or to refill the chip bowl to duck their heads back in the room. The performance also offered another glimpse of the choreographed preparations behind this show as the lights dimmed and the sea of fans surrounding the stage held afloat bluish flashlights that swayed along with Petty’s trot-paced singing. The song might be 20 years old and Petty might now show the mileage from years on the road, but he sounded strong and turned “Free Fallin'” into a contender for every mom and pop’s iPod.

The Heartbreakers brought the set home with “Running Down A Dream.” Campbell ran down the cut’s signature “Peter Gunn”-like guitar lick while playing a Jimmy Page-style double-neck Epiphone guitar. He again dazzled with a little fast-fingered fretwork — the closest that he has come to being a guitar hero — but it still might have been a bit too staid, too mature for those football fans looking for a performance you could shake the devil horns to.

This emphasis on youth carried over to the show’s presentation on TV. In sharp contrast to the old codgers on stage, the TV cameras kept cutting away to gawk at the young, tank-top-wearing hotties gathered at Petty’s feet. There were no middle-aged dinosaurs here as apparently all of Petty’s Phoenix-area fans just got their driver’s licenses, having become super fans from their parents’ record collections. It was telling of the show producers’ priorities that during the most visually interesting moment of the last song’s performance when Petty and Campbell were practically playing guitar back to back, the producers instead switched shots to focus on the “Girls Gone Wild” wannabes mugging nearby. Petty fans across the nation cringed as it made it appear that the band’s show was just folk-rock Muzak to the more exhilarating shots of young cleavage.

The youth market was also on producers’ minds when they enlisted last year’s American Idol winner Jordin Sparks to sing the National Anthem before the game. Arizona native Sparks, dressed all in black, sang a controlled and endearing version of the song. While many might have guessed the newbie vocalist would fall victim to youthful exuberance and try to over-sing an already famously overpowering tune. Instead, Sparks was thoroughly composed and offered only tasteful glimpses of her soulful pipes. Like Petty, she too appeared extremely well-prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime platform.

Although Petty and company seemed content to just to play it by the book, their set was sort of refreshing as compared to the bigger, showier aspects surrounding the whole Super Bowl spectacle. Mirroring Campbell’s tact for playing guitar solos, the group’s performance was a measured, almost surgical approach to rocking out. Like the old road dogs that they are, Petty and the Heartbreakers instinctively know their musical strengths, how to avoid immature indulgences and how to effectively push an audience’s buttons with economy. In this way, the band understands why people love jukeboxes — they give you exactly what you want.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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