'Reliable' is an adjective that gets thrown around a lot to describe Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Critics have long marvelled at the band's consistency, and rightly so; over 38 years and 13 studio albums, Petty and his Heartbreakers — most of which have been with him since 1976, by the way — have turned out dependably great songs.
That consistency isn't just reserved for the records, either; it extends to their live show — a meat and potatoes rock 'n' roll affair that places emphasis on workmanlike performances and peerless musicianship.
The Heartbreakers have played thousands of shows to millions of people; they've got this down. Many veteran classic rock acts still head out on greatest-hits nostalgia tours or disingenuous 'farewell' laps. The shows, if fans are lucky, are still quality; and even if they're not, well, it's easily forgiven. (Nothing makes one lie to oneself quite like a three-digit ticket price.)
But that's not what a Tom Petty show is. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have done what many of their peers have not. They've stayed relevant.
Tom Petty has been there for us. His songwriting crosses generations, a point underscored by the mix of ages that braved the torrential rain for Thursday night's gig at the MTS Centre (official attendance was not available at press time.) The band is touring in support of this year's Hypnotic Eye — the band's first number one album and another collection of could-be classics. Still, while there's been a hard push on the album — everyone who bought a ticket to the show got a copy of it — the hits were not neglected.
Taking the stage just after 9 p.m., Petty, wearing a giant grin and rocking a beard, kicked things off with a bright rendition of the Byrds' So You Want To Be a Rock 'n Roll Star before heading right into Mary Jane's Last Dance. When he strummed those familiar opening strains, the crowd went absolutely wild. The Heartbreakers — Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Scott Thurston and Steve Ferrone — play with a languid, loose-limbed ease; their performances are effortless.
"We're going to play some hits, we're going to play some new stuff, and we're going to go deep into some albums," Petty promised, before launching into the angst-rocker American Dream Plan B from Hypnotic Eye. The raw, ragged new material went over pretty well — musically speaking, anyway. There were a few front-row folks who were super into it; others were likely merely tolerating it as is the case at shows by artists with big, decade-spanning catalogues.
Still, as good as the new stuff is (it really is), it just didn't connect with the audiences the way the ol' chestnuts did. Petty is no dum-dum; he made sure to follow up another new one, Forgotten Man, with the familiar: the anthemic I Won't Back Down and a gorgeous performance of Free Fallin', that served as a reminder that we were in the presence of a master songwriter.
What's striking about Petty is how appreciative he looks; he honestly looks a little amazed that people are singing his words back to him — and not in a put-on Taylor Swift kind of way. It feels genuine.
There were some covers, too, including The Monkees' (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone. That was followed up with A Woman In Love (It's Not Me). Based on setlists from other stops on this tour, Winnipeg was treated to some different cuts.
If there was one flaw in the show, however, it was in the pacing. There are only so many mid-tempo rockers you can hear in a row before it all starts to drag a little; peaks and valleys are always preferable to a plateau. Still, that's a small complaint. There were some truly stunning performances, including Rebels and Learning to Fly, which elicited a crowd sing along.
At some arena shows, you can count costume changes; at this show, you could count guitars (I lost track after five). The latter half of the set was defined by sprawling Mike Campbell solos (Shadow People) and big, Zeppelin-esque rockers (I Should Have Known It). The band closed the main set with Runnin' Down a Dream, before returning promptly for an encore that included You Wreck Me and a spirited performance of American Girl which was met by a floor full of completely unselfconscious air drummers. And it was great. Just as it always is.
English bluesman Steve Winwood — a longtime tourmate of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — opened the show with a tight set that started strong with a high-energy version of I'm A Man, his 1966 hit with the Spencer Davis Group.
At 66, Winwood's still got the pipes as he proved on a soulful performance of Can't Find My Way Home. His nine-song set drew from all over his prolific career, but it was heavy on material from his Traffic days — including Medicated Goo, Empty Pages and the soaring Dear Mr. Fantasy. The band — arranged in a cozy little semi-circle, like teenagers trying to fit in a basement jam space — wasn't afraid to stretch out on some songs, as on the slinky acid jazz number Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. The interplay between these players was a thrill to watch. They closed, of course, with Gimme Some Lovin'.