Concert Review: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Fenway Park, August 30, 2014

Let’s be honest: I went to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Fenway Park last week because I’ve never seen anyone at Fenway, hadn’t seen Petty in forever, and the Venn diagram between bands that could play Fenway and bands I would schlep to Boston in order to see was rapidly shrinking. (I suppose Springsteen could always do it again in the future—the dates in the past have never worked out for me—but I wasn’t willing to take that chance.) I am glad I had the experience, although I would not go out of my way to see a show at Fenway again. This was because the extreme party atmosphere (which I realize for many is part of the reason they want to see a concert at Fenway) detracted from the show in a major way for me. But what’s significant is that even with all of that, the show ended up being more profound than I had anticipated.

I think the last time I saw Tom Petty was in the 80s (and there is no Tom Petty concert chronology so I cannot look this up anywhere). He was always an artist I liked, respected and paid attention to, but I’m going to guess that his shows always conflicted with someone who simply ranked higher on that list. Even during my punk rock days, it always felt like he was someone who wouldn’t have a problem walking through our neighborhood, even if he lived a couple of blocks in the other direction.

There are lots of reasons people go to see a classic rock artist. People go to hear “the song”—everyone in our immediate vicinity was clearing waiting for “American Girl,” the people behind us insisting he would open with it, the guys in front and to the right telling their friends that he was going to play it next (after every song), the random bozos walking by the beer line and yelling for it in every single pause of the action. People go to sing along, drink beer, and hear the songs they grew up with or grew up listening to their parents play—the multigenerational groups were obvious, and thick on the ground. All of these people are happy to have the concert on the stage in front of them be background music, and they would sing the chorus or the opening line and then go back to carrying on their various conversations.

This, as you can imagine, drove me fucking nuts. I was unwilling to pay the hefty premium for VIP seats, and the Fenway Park ticketing system played its usual magic and lost the front floor section tickets I pulled. We settled for the B section, all the way over to the left, which is about as far back as we would have accepted and still gone to the show. I realize that being in the VIP section on a Saturday night at Fenway would absolutely not been a guarantee I would have been surrounded by diehards who were more interested in the show than making sure their beer supply didn’t run out, but it would have least put me in better proximity of the elements I go to a show like this to enjoy.

When you go to see a veteran band like this—and let’s remember that the ‘new guy,’ as Petty joked during the band intros, is Steve Ferrone, who’s been there for 20 years—you’re not just going to hear the songs. You’re going for the experience of what it’s like to see that particular configuration of humans manifest their unique shared energy. Not to get all new age woo woo on you, but Tom Petty onstage with Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell is a very specific, particular thing and that vibe is so powerful you can feel it all the way over in section B7 (which was approximately in the location that Yoenis Cespedes usually hangs out in). All of this voodoo was so thick out there that it drove me batty that I wasn’t closer to all of this action, but it was also so thick that it transcended all of the bullshit that I was surrounded with.

The camera work wasn’t bad; they knew what we wanted to look at most of the time, and there were ancillary cameras too—Benmont has a couple just dedicated to him. It was enough to let us play “What guitar is THAT?” (although I was sad to find out later that Mike Campbell wasn’t playing a Rickenbacker mandolin, which would have been the most Mike Campbell thing ever, but rather a mandolin designed to look like a RIckenbacker) , and see the smiles and the nods and the smaller moments that were just too far in the distance to see without assistance. There are few things I love more than watching a band leader lead their band, and although the Heartbreakers certainly could motor on just fine—better than fine—without direction, Petty still runs the show and controls the dynamic, and that I could thankfully enjoy without video assistance. (I just cannot spend an entire concert I am at watching a video screen, and it drives me bonkers when people close enough to see without it still stand facing it; it makes me feel like I am looking the wrong way when the opposite is true.)

The Boston audience was in fine voice throughout the night, but resonated with moments I wouldn’t have expected, and completely ignored others—sometimes it felt like they were cheering the volume and the light show more than what was actually happening onstage.They greeted “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” warmly, but seemed nonplussed for “I Won’t Back Down”. There were warm cheers of recognition to the four songs featured from Hypnotic Eye, the new album, but were completely befuddled by an acoustic “Rebels,” which was quite honestly one of my personal highlights; it gave the song extended depth and emotion, which is missing from the original.

Other personal highlights were “Free Fallin’” (where it was observed by the boyfriend that I sing all of Benmont’s vocal harmony lines); I was reminded that imo he still owes Westerberg royalties for that “rebel without a clue” line in “Into The Great White Open.” The intro to “Woman In Love” just walloped me with intense deja vu; I was in my teens and listening to the song on the radio, driving in the dark somewhere. It was crisp, searing and intense. I literally had goosebumps during the bridge on “Refugee,” those soaring organ notes from Benmont strong and unmistakeable as ever. And “Running Down A Dream” was a piledriver, with incredible, deep guitar work from Mike Campbell, ending with him depositing his guitar face up on the stage, still resonating as the Heartbreakers took their bows.

“Don’t Come Around Here” as the encore opener wasn’t strong enough to grab the audience—most of whom were thinking about how they were getting out of here, or where they were going to next—and the loss of energy in the room was vivid. But “You Wreck Me” picked it back up again, surprisingly, even if the jam felt more like the Grateful Dead than the Heartbreakers. And for the last number, Petty came to the mic and told a story about how, in the early days, they put out a record, and no one played it, and no one played it, and no one played it—until one day, someone came running into the room saying, “They’re playing it in Boston!” and the unmistakeable notes of “American Girl” came ringing into the Fenway night.

Speaking of goosebumps, I did arrive in time to catch the last half of Steve Winwood’s opening set (although “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” had begun while we were at a restaurant down the block and was still going by the time we walked up to Yawkey Way, went through the turnstiles, and made our way to our seats), but I legit had goosebumps at the intro to “Gimme Some Lovin’, another number elevated by its organ riff, which was only appropriate tonight.