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BENT NIGHTS Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester

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When the executives at MCA Records sent two largely unknown and seemingly incompatible rockers on a low-budget promotional tour in 1977, they couldn't possibly know what they had started. The pairing of Brit nerd Elvis Costello ( a quick replacement for the Sex Pistols ) and Florida scarecrow Tom Petty would, in a brief two years, reshape AM radio beyond those executives' expectations.

Costello would produce three stunning albums ( This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Get Happy, all on Stiff/CBS Records ) and garner a near religious following and ecstatic critical praise, while sending the seemingly uncommercial New Wave and punk-rock music ( along with Blondie and The Cars ) to the top of the charts. Then came the crash with reports of shitty behavior, questionable artistic choices and that drunken barroom slur fest that got his records yanked off playlists and made him the target of death threats. Thirty two years later, Costello is still apologizing for that one.

Petty's story lacks Costello's drama, and he and his crack band The Heartbreakers ( Mike Campbell on lead guitar, Ron Blair on bass, Steve Ferrone on drums and Benmont Tench on keyboards ) have made a career out of doing the same thing they did on 1979's breakout Damn the Torpedoes ( MCA Records ): make straight-up, deceptively high-quality, addictive rock while embracing mass popularity and critical appreciation. I mean, really, it is hard to find fault with the guy; even if you are a light casual listener, its downright impossible not to strongly identify with his songs or their protagonists. Although he has never spoken for or against the LGBTQ community, its difficult to think of the fight for marriage equality without "I Won't Back Down" or the plight of LGBTQ homeless youth without "Refugee" coming to mind.

Even more deceptive is that Petty has never made much of being a prancing rock star, choosing to consistently release albums, touring and collecting platinum discs along the way. There have been high-profile pairings ( Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne ) but the guy is so damned consistent, polished and talented that it's easy to take him for granted. ( I certainly did until I saw Peter Bogdanovich's documentary Runnin' Down A Dream. ) Now on a massive SRO 40th-anniversary tour that hit Wrigley Field on June 29, Petty could be expected to dole out the hits and ride off into the sunset ( he is 66 and it is likely that this is his last big tour ), and he did all of that—but with a twist.

The first shrewd bit to this show was opener Chris Stapleton, who has managed to conquer country radio by following Petty's lead. His twang-flavored rockers are equal parts blues, grit and brawl and are refreshingly direct. With his whiskey-soaked voice, Stapleton's new standards like "Nobody to Blame but Myself," "Broken Halos" and "Tennessee Whiskey" come as a blunt antidote to the slickness coming out of Nashville.

Despite the soggy weather, show felt like a homecoming and Petty love fest and he seemed genuinely overwhelmed by his greeting. Then he rolled out the hits opening with a dark reading of "Last Dance with Mary Jane" which had a gravity and shading that defied the setting. I was not sure if I heard it right but Petty and the Heartbreakers' equally complex readings of "Forgotten Man" and "You Got Lucky" were precise, pristine, and slightly murky, making them more appropriate for a small club rather then a ball park.

"I Won't Back Down" set the audience into a goofy celebratory bliss ( I had to admit, though I love the song as much as anyone else, dodging the drunken dancers got to be a challenge ) while a leisurely "Free Falling" had a sinister vibe that hinted at madness. My personal favorite, "Don't Come Around Here No More," was oddly slowed down with Dave Stewart's sitar parts shaved off and Petty flinging his fingers at the audience with the coiled mock fury of the Wicked Witch of the West. It was the nights biggest laugh. "It's Good to Be King" gave Petty his first all-out arena-rock moment, with him starting a satiny guitar solo and Campbell finishing it with incendiary skill to spare.

It was nice to hear Petty dive into some of the lesser-known tracks from Wildflowers ( "Running Back to You" was especially elegant ), though the reading of the title track got a bit too close to soft rock for my taste.

Before the inevitable pile-up at the end, Petty wisely gave "The Last Time Your Gonna Hurt Me" a bluesy spin while Campbell ripped through the solo with bloodcurdling fury. "Refugee" closed the set properly and then came the encore with Petty in a Cubs jersey ( but of course ) thundering through a vicious "You Wreck Me," "Running Down A Dream" and "American Girl."

As red, white and blue fireworks exploded over Wrigley's home plate, I had to wonder if Petty's exit from the stage was the end of an era. And if, in fact, it is the last time we had the chance to see him live onstage, just how long will his legacy last? I wouldn't be surprised if, decades into the future, Petty finds himself as celebrated as The Beatles or Elvis.

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