Sunday, 24 June 2012
I was one of the lucky ones who managed to get tickets to the Royal Albert Hall this week to see and hear the best American band of its time, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Lord alone knows why he hasn't played here for 13 years. I last saw him at Wembley in 1992, on the Into the Great Wide Open tour. He was great then, and I do believe he is even greater now. He has mellowed, yet his voice is just the same as in the late 70s. He and his hugely accomplished band seem tighter than ever, clearly loving their job and each other.
Petty himself displays the charming good manners of a well-brought-up Southern boy, thanking the crowd as though humbled by the roars of approval and standing ovations (but he's had them at every gig of this tour). "Thank you. Thank you so very much. You're so kind". His introduction of his band members is warm and sincere; the "newest member of the band joined us in 1989". At the end of the concert, the band applauded the crowd, strolled along the front of the stage shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with people who had just seen the best concert of the year, maybe of their lives. They were still doing it when a fifth of the audience had left the arena. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are an awesome live band, and we were drunk and happy on their music.
The elder Idle brother gave me the eponymous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album in the sixth form at school, which marked me out as one-of-the-guys-who-discovers-bands-early, an important badge of respect from those who were then forming their musical tastes by what was played on Top of the Pops by such Olympian opinion-formers as Dave Lee Travis and Jimmy Saville.
Well, I loved them at once, was blown away by that truly great early album Damn the Torpedoes, which I played incessantly as a cadet at Sandhurst, and have remained a fan since. But there was something about the concert this week which franked it all. When rock stars reach a certain antiquity, they are given extra marks - for surviving a murderously competitive industry, indeed for surviving at all (Keith Richards, Eric Clapton) - but this is often cancelled out by waning powers. Sir Elton John, for instance, is forgiven his often grossly selfish and foolish behaviour because, well, he was a genius writer of popular music, and had the good sense to team up with a superb lyricist, and he still staggers on. But can he hit a note in the upper half of the register? Can he hell! He doesn't even try, which makes his live performances an uncomfortable experience, never knowing in which direction he will head off when the chorus comes around - a chorus, incidentally, that we wish to sing along to, but it's impossible. He really isn't any good any more, not even making an effort on his piano playing, but rather just bashing it like the chimp in the PG Tips ads of the 1970s. McCartney can still play his guitar, and his hazlenut barnet gives him, from afar, a hint of his past youth, but the Jubilee concert reminded us that he can't sing for toffee, either.
So when you have a performer who has been at the top of his game as long as Tom Petty, who has written so many memorable songs, who is so highly regarded by his peers (The Wilburys? Orbison, Harrison, Lynne, Dylan, and........ PETTY), and who still plays and sings quite wonderfully well, despite the fags and the booze, I say three cheers for him.
Tom Petty is one of the Greats, and I'll tread on your toes with my Texan boot heels if you even consider disagreement.
PS For the uninitiated, here is the trailer for Peter Bogdanovich's masterful four-hour documentary of Petty, made five years ago, Runnin Down a Dream. Woo hoo!
création d' idle at 4:17 pm