SAN FRANCISCO -- On his first night at the legendary Fillmore
Auditorium on Sunday, Tom Petty came bearing something old, something new, something borrowed and some blues.
After offering a taste of his latest material as well as a few standards and vintage covers, Petty and his Heartbreakers closed the sold-out opener of a seven-night engagement here by transporting their audience back to when pop music was as much about rocking out to the blues as it was about breaking new ground.
It was a fitting end to a night filled with musical flashbacks.
Wielding his retro Gibson Flying V guitar like a six-shooter, Petty hammered out a raucous boogie-blues lead that evoked such old-school Dixie rockers as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band.
Petty flashed a wry smile after the song. Then -- lest the 1,200 fans on hand to see the veteran band think Petty had forgotten which songs got him there -- he segued directly into a revved-up, set-ending version of his hit "You Wreck Me." It was a playful tug of war Petty would engage in often during the show.
Looking relaxed in a black-leather vest, white dress shirt, jeans and loose bolo-style tie -- his bleached-blonde hair in the familiar Prince Valiant cut Petty has sported for most of his nearly three-decade career -- the singer led his band through a 25-song, two-hour-plus mix of rock standards, greatest hits and a few new tunes from the Heartbreakers' upcoming album, Echo (April 13).
After a show-opening set by country folk singer Lucinda Williams, Petty and company -- guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Howie Epstein, keyboardist Benmont Tench, drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Scott Thurston -- took the stage energetically, ripping into a loose, rockabilly rendition of Chuck Berry's "Reelin' and Rockin'."
The concert format was similar to that of the string of 20 sold-out shows the Heartbreakers performed at the same venue two years ago. The band offered its own hits, such as "Jammin' Me," "Running Down a Dream" and "You Don't Know How It Feels," as well as such rock classics as Booker T. and the MGs' instrumental "Green Onions," and songs by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Petty jokingly plugged his band's new album a half-dozen times during
Sunday's show. He also showcased the disc's first single, the stomping
"Free Girl Now," during which drummer Ferrone pounded away in an almost industrial-rock fashion.
Echo was produced by Petty and Campbell in conjunction with longtime producing partner Rick Rubin, head of American Records. The 15-song album will feature the tracks "Accused of Love," "About to Give Out," "Rhino Skin" and "Swingin'," a mid-tempo rocker Petty performed Sunday night. Leaning up to the microphone to deliver the song in a low-key, Dylanesque vocal style, Petty spun a classic Heartbreakers Americana tale about a girl in trouble with the law who hits the highway to escape her past.
Petty and band also debuted the spare acoustic ballad "Room at the Top," which finds the singer imagining a room at the top of the world. "I can see everything tonight," Petty drawled, "I ain't comin' down."
The veteran pop-rock group hasn't released a new studio album since 1996's score to the film "She's the One," which featured the song "Walls (Circus)" (RealAudio excerpt). Petty and the Heartbreakers rearranged that tune Sunday into a wistful narrative backed by skeletal drums, piano and acoustic guitar; Petty dedicated the song to legendary film director Stanley Kubrick, whose death was reported earlier in the day. Similarly refashioned into introspective ballads with little or no percussion were such vintage Petty hits as "Even the Losers" and "I Won't Back Down."
Although Petty and the Heartbreakers are best known for paying homage to such classic pop groups as the Byrds and the Beatles via instantly hummable radio songs including "Running Down a Dream" and "American Girl," a number of Sunday night's tunes were laced with the southern rock sound Petty outran when he left his native Florida for the West Coast years ago.
A cover of Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy" bore a marked swamp boogie overtone, while 1978's "Listen to Her Heart" and 1994's "It's Good to Be King" (RealAudio excerpt) betrayed a love of '70s arena rock. The latter even included a double-neck guitar solo from Campbell.
The band closed out the originals portion of the show with an extended jam on its hit "Mary Jane's Last Dance," complete with Campbell's Peter Framptonesque talking wah-wah guitar solo. The group then segued into a self-deprecating take on Them's classic rock show-stopper "Gloria" -- during which Petty ad-libbed a monologue mocking his rock star status.
The group will continue its Fillmore run this week with shows Monday (March 8), Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It will conclude its stay next week with shows set for Monday and Tuesday.
Except for Monday's planned opener -- the Latin-funk band War -- no supporting acts have been announced for the gigs.