40 YEARS….There’s three things you can count on life—death, taxes and a rip roaring, soul stirring, earth shakin’ show by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Over the past four decades, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have delivered consistently, heartland rock practitioners consummate in professionalism, excellence and execution. Closing a three-night sold out stand at the Hollywood Bowl, also the final show on their 40th anniversary trek—Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers hit the stage and threw down old school style, plucking out a deep, seldom played cut from their rich catalog, the lead off track from the band’s self-titled debut, “Rockin’ Around (With You.)”
For the next two hours, the band’s founding members Tom Petty, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair plus more recent recruits, drummer Steve Ferrone, ace multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and the Webb Sisters on background vocals, demonstrated their mastery on the concert stage, balancing instrumental virtuosity with an winning economy of sound.
Early in the set Petty dedicated “I Won’t Back Down” to ABC Records promo rep Jon Scott, championing him for his relentless pursuit in getting the band onto radio airwaves nationwide with “Breakdown.” Rarely played in their live show, that song, a request by the band’s faithful and loyal road crew, received an airing; the band stretching the song beyond its single length, Campbell and Tench battling back and forth with improvisational splendor.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers have an enviable problem that lesser bands can only wish for; they’ve had too many hits songs and inevitably every set list will skip over worthy mega hits. This show was no different, signature hits like “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Listen To Her Heart,” “The Waiting,” “A Woman In Love,” “Even The Losers” were among the tracks sidelined. Instead, the band attacked the flurry of hits that did comprise most of the set with a remarkable sense of urgency, like they had something still left to prove.
And while show stoppers like “Free Falling,” Running Down A Dream,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Yer So Bad, “It’s Good To Be King,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Refugee” were crowd favorites, one of the show’s highlights was a welcome dip into Petty’s acclaimed solo album, Wildflowers. Heartfelt versions of “Crawling Back To You” and “Wildflowers” resonated with plaintive emotion and aching beauty.
A double shot encore of a storming rendition of “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl” capped off a tremendously exciting and vibrant show that could have resulted in a predictable by the numbers jukebox recitation. But instead, the band proved that while they honor their storied past, they’re still looking to the future. There’s many contenders for America’s band—The Beach Boys, Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to name but a few—but based on the show this writer saw at The Hollywood Bowl, that band is Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
WORTH THE WAITE…One would be hard pressed to come up with a vocalist that sprung out of the ‘70s or ‘80s that is better than ever in 2017. John Waite is one of those rare artists possessing a voice of extraordinary power and emotion that by some miraculous twist of fate and God given gift, has somehow managed to have gotten stronger over time. That commanding vocal prowess is displayed on his new release, Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology Volume Two; also out at the same time is a newly reconfigured version of his greatest hits album, BEST. We sat down with John who shared the back story behind his acoustic flavored artistic endeavors.
With “Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology Volume Two,” can you explain the appeal of cutting songs with primarily acoustic instrumentation?
John Waite: I was distracted by the past. My roots are all in acoustic music; everything that moved me came from the acoustic guitar–cowboy music really. If it stands up unplugged it’s going be solid when you “plug in.” We play a lot of Wooden Heart shows. They are packed so I think people really get it! The band is mainly about volume and soul so we still feel good about that. Two worlds, one band!
How do these songs come alive and reveal themselves in an acoustic format as opposed to an electric forum?
Well, “Isn’t It Time” seemed like the most impossible thing to pull off because it’s such a big production. The things that moved me the most about the last record with Shane [Fontayne] was “A Heart Needs A Home,” the Richard Thompson song. It was the most stark. On this new album, we actually managed to do a pretty great version of “Isn’t It Time” with just one vocal and one guitar. That really surprised me. I was singing in a way that I didn’t expect to sing and I was phrasing in a way which was completely new to me to make it fit and to balance the song. Of all the songs on the record, that the one that I look at and go, “How did I do that?” But all the songs come alive when you take out the backing track. A song is only as good as it is when it’s sung on an acoustic guitar. Once you add the drums it becomes something else. I always find when something is stripped down to its barest parts you can tell what you’ve got, especially with the singing.
A lot of people may not know this but you’re a big fan of Fairport Convention and their classic “Liege and Lief” album. Embracing that traditional acoustic/folky flavor has been a part of your DNA.
Oh yeah. When I was listening to Free and Jimi Hendrix and The Who and Led Zeppelin and all those great bands, I was also listening to Fairport Convention. But all those bands were aware of them too. Sandy Denny from Fairport went and sang on Led Zeppelin III. Everybody that was really cool and knew about the blues and had those kind of roots also was heavily tapped into English folk music. That by extension is really country music or maybe Appalachian music. There’s a direct relationship between those forms, Scottish/Irish roots.
It happens a lot with artists as they grow older that they return and re-embrace the things that first ignited their interest in music.
I think the more you know, the less you know. As you get older you remember and it comes back to what moved you so deeply about the music you heard as a kid. I’ve seen the whole thing. I was young enough to catch the first wave of what happened and lived through so many changes. It always came back to the acoustic no matter what. My cousin, Michael, once played me a whole bunch of American songs, from Jimmy Reed to Hank Williams to Big Bill Broonzy, on this big National guitar he had with a resonator in it. It had this fabulous sound. I remember looking at this guitar and thinking, “What’s this?” And the songs were about this other country. I think when you’re exposed to that at that age it goes very deep and you keep that for the rest of your life.
Run us through the tracks for the new “Wooden Heart: Acoustic Anthology” album.
Okay, we have “Catch the Wind’ by Donovan opening the album and then it’s “In God’s Shadow,” “Missing You,” “Downtown,” “Isn’t It Time” and then the original recording of “Masterpiece of Loneliness.” There’s a new version of “Head First,” “Bluebird, “Valentine,” Girl From the North Country” and the original version of “Hanging Tree.” The song “More” is also in there. The amazing thing is Shane is playing guitar on all the original songs that I put on there plus the new songs. He’s on guitar on everything but “Girl From The North Country,” which is Damon Johnson.
When starting out in music, was a career in music an “all or nothing” proposition or did that come later?
No, there was no plan B. I went to art school for four years and I was gonna be a painter and I had an epiphany that I was never gonna be a great painter. (laughs) When you’re young you’re really ambitious and want to do the best work that’s ever been done. You felt that you have a shot at doing that. You just can’t help it; you’re walking forward blindly. But I knew if I used music as a kind of palette I stood a chance at doing something that would be more original and would be me. I never thought of myself as a great singer by any means. I always thought of myself as a songwriter and it’s only been recently that I look at myself as a singer and have that kind of confidence to carry myself onstage, whether it’s with the unplugged “Wooden Heart” thing or the flat out full band. There’s a version I did of “Whole Lotta Love” on my Facebook page. One minute we’re blazing through “Whole Lotta Love” and then I turn round with an acoustic guitar. The fact that I could do that, I think I’ve arrived. That’s what I always wanted to be.
What makes the reconfigured version of “BEST” different from the one that came out a few years back?
Well, it’s got the studio version of “Evil,” not the live version. It’s got “In God’s Shadow” on there and the original version of “Downtown.” A lot of the other songs have been taken off. It’s 12 songs and it’s a very direct and musical. I think with the first version of “BEST” I wanted to explain myself musically by putting on all the acoustic stuff as well but “Bluebird Café” is still on there. It’s the John Waite story now. It’s something you could listen to in an hour and really get it.
When you were on a major label, you’d run into problems from the label brass about putting out a reconfigured version of album release just a few years back. That said, in the past few years, there’s been a dramatic paradigm shift with artists regaining control and labels losing much of their power and clout. With this paradigm shift, as an artist how does that make things easier and by contrast, what are the obstacles you face in today’s musical climate?
Mick Jagger once said, “the record companies are just there to put the records in the stores.” That was back in I think 1970 and I thought it was a brilliant thing to say and it probably didn’t make him any friends in the A&R department. (laughs) But fundamentally they are a distributor. Over the years they’ve made A&R departments and marketing departments and all sorts of departments to control the music. Some bands sign to labels and think it’s gonna be the greatest thing in the world and suddenly they find themselves sitting across a desk from someone who doesn’t even like their music and they’re supposed to make product. I didn’t make a lot of friends in the music business because I just couldn’t do that. You had an A&R guy talking to you and saying, “We don’t want you to do that” and you’re like, “Well, what do you mean?” You understand immediately the relationship they expect you to have with them. So I always felt like I was not really in the music business. I think having that control back means you make better work. I think there have been some brilliant A&R men. John Hammond was the original, two guns blazing, brilliant human being. He discovered Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen and he knew exactly what was what. He was a totally brilliant guy but after that, there’s only a couple of people that are really in the same kind of street and they’re not in the same league.