Tom Petty’s new songs soar and his oldies roar at the Heartbreakers show in Vancouver

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By Steve Newton

Along with the obligatory old hits, and tunes from his new number-one album, Tom Petty has been including some choice covers on his current tour. As well as opening shows with the Byrds’ riotous “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”, his last three West Coast dates have seen him separately cover Big Joe Williams (“Baby, Please Don’t Go”), the Grateful Dead (“Friend of the Devil”), and Ray Charles (“I Got a Woman”).

Pondering which cover the 63-year-old Petty might pull out along with the Byrds’ tune at Rogers Arena last night, I wrote a fun little blog suggesting Bruce Cockburn’s “If a Tree Falls” might be a nice Canuck-flavoured choice, but apparently Petty didn’t get the memo. He went with the Ray Charles tune again, prefacing it with childhood reminiscings on buying Elvis 45s. And he threw in a third cover to boot: Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone”, which is best known as a Monkees hit.

I don’t think anybody saw that coming.

And I don’t think anybody complained, either, because Petty’s crack band, the Heartbreakers, makes everything sound awesome. Guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, and drummer Steve Ferrone are one helluva combo. Throw Petty’s monumental songwriting talents and expressive vocals into the mix and you really can’t go wrong.

That was clearly evident when the sextet followed “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, a 1993 tune so obviously great that it first appeared on Petty’s Greatest Hits. Two songs in and the Heartbreakers had the crowd joyously swaying and hollering its approval of that supposedly weed-themed number. The only thing missing was a dedication to Marc Emery.

Petty’s 20-song set included four tracks from his new Hypnotic Eye album, including the catchy “U Get Me High” and one of his heaviest songs ever, “Shadow People”, which rides a rugged riff similar to that on John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey”. The audience seemed quite taken by the fresh material, although they forgot all about it when the group launched into Petty’s 1991 hit “Learning to Fly” and one gesture from him led the crowd to intercept its chorus for a mass singalong.

A typically exhilirating version of Petty’s stone-cold ’76 classic “American Girl” ended a night that had opened with a strong set by Steve Winwood, who blended solo hits like 1986’s poppy “Higher Love” with meatier tunes from his previous bands Traffic and the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood deftly handled lead-guitar on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” before switching to organ for the set-closing “Gimme Some Lovin'”.

He didn’t have to ask for the lovin’ twice, either; the audience was more than happy to oblige.

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