By Chris M. Junior
The great ones make it seem so easy.
Slowing down fan favorites or working in newer and longer songs can be a roll of the dice in an amphitheater atmosphere, but not when the band is as savvy and skilled as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who are about as close as there is to a sure thing concert-wise.
During their roughly two-hour show at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., on Sept. 11, Petty and his five-man band seamlessly sprinkled in altered and less-obvious material that was not only well-executed but well-received.
About halfway through the main set, Petty strapped on an acoustic guitar for a gentle presentation of the normally anthemic “Rebels,” featuring tasteful and delicate piano work by Benmont Tench. “Learning to Fly” was also quieter and slower, with drummer Steve Ferrone keeping time with shakers and the audience providing very audible vocal support to the chorus.
Up next was “Shadow People,” the closing track on the latest Petty/Heartbreakers album, “Hypnotic Eye.” The song’s existing Neil Young and Crazy Horse vibe and tension were magnified onstage, most notably when Petty made the rare switch from rhythm to lead and played the last solo, a series of biting notes in contrast to Mike Campbell's more fluid, vibrato-enriched style.
That song was immediately followed by an extended version of “I Should Have Known It” (from 2010’s “Mojo”). Sans guitar, Petty leaned forward into his microphone and paused even longer than usual before ending each chorus with the pivotal line “That’s the last time you’re gonna hurt me.”
Of course, Petty and the Heartbreakers faithfully played plenty of hits, including a bunch from “Full Moon Fever,” along with covers of The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” (which opened the show) and the Ray Charles-penned “I Got a Woman,” done rockabilly style a la Elvis Presley (whom Petty briefly imitated beforehand to laughs and cheers). Ferrone, whose steadiness can sometimes seem mechanical, added extra thump to “Refugee” and played double time under Mike Campbell’s end guitar solo; the former Average White Band drummer subsequently attacked his cymbals in the closing moments of “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” which concluded the main set. (The encores were “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl.”)
Opening for Petty and the Heartbreakers was fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Steve Winwood, who made the most of his nearly one-hour set. He opened and closed with the Spencer Davis Group classics “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin,’” and in between alternated from organ and guitar for signature Traffic, Blind Faith and solo material. Like Petty and the Heartbreakers, Winwood and his backing musicians didn’t exactly stick to the script, giving the 1986 hit “Higher Love” a feel that entered Allman Brothers Band territory.
Upcoming Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers/Steve Winwood tour stops include Hartford, Conn. (Sept. 13); Philadelphia (Sept. 15); Allentown, Pa. (Sept. 16); and Raleigh, N.C. (Sept. 18).