TOM PETTY and the HEARTBREAKERS – ” Live In Colorado “

Posted: October 2, 2017 in MUSIC
Tags: , , , , ,

It’s about an hour before Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre for what may be the last time. Backstage, Petty is in his dressing room putting on a frontier rebel’s headdress to fight the chill. Keyboardist Benmont Tench is tweeting about the sad state of our country under Donald Trump. Bassist Ron Blair has battled stage fright for years since rejoining the Heartbreakers in 2002, after a 20-year sanity break. He wanders into Tom Petty’s dressing room and cops to something you’re not likely to admit to your bandleader unless you’ve known him for 40 years. “I’m kinda nervous, you know,” says Blair in a quiet voice.

Petty rarely describes himself as the leader of his band, but as “the older brother they sometimes have to listen to.” Tonight, he gives Blair some fatherly assurance and a toothy Southern smile: “Let me be nervous for you.”

The band takes the stage and blows through “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first song on its self-titled first album, from 1976. Petty ends the next few songs strumming in front of the drum set, trading man-crush smiles with drummer Steve Ferrone (Tench jokes, “They should get a room”). Petty even grins through a joyous version of “Walls,” from 1996’s She’s the Onean album he’s complained about for nearly 20 years.

And then there’s a flash of lightning. Rain pours down. The Heartbreakers are shooed into the catacombs of Red Rocks, and 9,000 fans head for cover.

As the bandmates wait out the rain, Petty asks if they want to add their 1999 song “Swingin'” to the second half of the set. Everyone agrees: They do. The Heartbreakers aren’t a democracy, but more of a benevolent dictatorship. This is true when it comes to the set list. “We can make suggestions,” says Tench with a wry smile. “Sometimes they’re even accepted.”

After 20 minutes, the Heartbreakers retake the stage. They play “Swingin’,” which has a chorus where Petty lists icons who “went down swinging,” including Sonny Liston and Sammy Davis. Tench, who sings with Petty on the song, switches it up. Epstein provided the beautiful high harmonies on the record, so Tench sneaks in a tribute to his departed friend: “He went down swingin’/Just like Howie Epstein.”

Petty is supposed to do some acoustic numbers from Wildflowers, his 1994 solo album. There’s just one problem: His guitar is dead, soaked by the rain. There’s confusion and uncertainty on the band mates’ faces for a moment, like it’s a 1975 show at a honky-tonk in Gainesville. Then Petty and Campbell shout across the stage, “Ben, play something!”

Tench, the best keyboardist in American rock, breaks into a pastiche of boogie-woogie, a homage to pianist Pete Johnson. The group chimes in, not quite in sync, until Petty switches to Chuck Berry’s “Carol.” The Heartbreakers fall in line, sounding like the best bar band you don’t want to tell your friends about.

They encore with “American Girl.” The bandmates take a bow, wiping sweat and rain off their faces. Everyone exits, but Petty seems reluctant to leave. He takes a few steps toward the front of the stage and gives a last wave.

One word Petty and the band never mention: retirement. Petty still goes into his Malibu home office to write songs  right across from his home studio. He’s mostly a homebody, rarely even venturing the 45 minutes into Los Angeles unless it’s to see his two daughters and his young granddaughter. There was a Mudcrutch tour last year and a turn producing a record for former Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. The Heartbreakers will record again and play live in some capacity. After 40 years, it would be surprising if there weren’t a few regrets. “Howie should’ve gotten some lead on a record,” Tench says of Epstein. “He should’ve produced a record for the Heartbreakers. I would’ve loved that.” Then he shrugs. “But I’m not in charge.”

There’s been a valedictory feel to the Heartbreakers‘ 40th-anniversary tour, which Petty says is the band’s final country-spanning run – the “last big one.” Everyone else is a bit skeptical. “I’ve been hearing that for 15 years,” says guitarist and original Heartbreaker Mike Campbell. “We’ll see.”

The crowds are still there, something Petty is clearly proud of when we sit down in a hotel room on an off day. To be honest, he looks more jittery offstage than on. This may be because he is chain-smoking, alternating between Marlboros and vaping, perhaps as a concession to the Denver Ritz-Carlton’s smoking policy.

Petty says sleep is now his friend. “I need a new Netflix show, does anyone have any suggestions?” he asks just before his assistant ducks out of the room. Someone suggests Bloodlinea noirish series set in his native Florida.

Petty is defiant about the hyper pace of the tour, which hits 30 cities this spring and summer. “Unless you’ve done it, you can’t understand what it is,” says Petty, brushing his scarecrow hair out of his face. “And if you’re not really experienced, you will fall.”

What keeps the Heartbreakers together is simple: The band has been their life since 1976.  Benjamin Montmorency Tench III, was a prep-school kid and piano prodigy. Tench wears suits and went to Exeter, but he’s the fiery one. In the Peter Bogdanovich documentary on the Heartbreakers, 2007’s Runnin’ Down a Dream, Tench can be heard screaming at his bandmates to take things seriously. His nickname is Mad Dog. When Tench used to go on one of his tirades, a roadie would slide a dog bowl of water under his piano.

Petty, Campbell and 
Tench formed the nucleus of the band Mudcrutch,
which morphed into the
 Heartbreakers in 1976,
 after adding San Diego native Blair on bass and 
Stan Lynch on drums.
 Blair fried out and
 bailed in 1982. He opened a bikini shop in the Valley and was replaced by Howie Epstein, but the band loomed in his subconscious. “I’d dream I’d be walking to the stage, and be like, ‘I don’t know “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,”‘ recalls Blair. “I had half a dozen of those nightmares, so I started learning those songs so I could get a night’s sleep.”

This proved fortuitous when Epstein died of heroin-related complications in 2003. “I don’t think the band continues without Ron,” Tench tells me. “Bringing in someone new wouldn’t have worked.”

“About 20 years ago, we stopped doing soundchecks,” says Petty. “It eats up the whole day and we’d argue, and then you’d come back and the sound would be completely different with a crowd.”

The other game-changer was Dylan. By 1986, the band had toured relentlessly for a decade. Off the road, everyone was a mess – some members dealing with substance issues, some just dealing with real life. “The road and the studio are the only places I’ve ever felt completely OK,” says Petty, lighting another Marlboro. “In any other life situation I’m terribly retarded.” Petty got a call from Dylan asking if the band would back him on a tour. Petty raced out a “hell, yes.” Watching footage, you can see him smiling his head off, ecstatic to not be leading the show. The experience taught him how to be in the Heartbreakers, not just lead them. “That’s when we learned how to really be a band,” says Petty.

 

One word Petty and the band never mention: retirement. Petty still goes into his Malibu home office to write songs  right across from his home studio. He’s mostly a homebody, rarely even venturing the 45 minutes into Los Angeles unless it’s to see his two daughters and his young granddaughter. There was a Mudcrutch tour last year and a turn producing a record for former Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. The Heartbreakers will record again and play live in some capacity. After 40 years, it would be surprising if there weren’t a few regrets. “Howie should’ve gotten some lead on a record,” Tench says of Epstein. “He should’ve produced a record for the Heartbreakers. I would’ve loved that.” Then he shrugs. “But I’m not in charge.”

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