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SPIRITED AND RELAXED

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Steve Winwood/PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, N.J./Sept. 11, 2014

Tom Petty_Medleyville_B&W_CMJ.jpg   It was a hot and beatific night for rock ’n’ roll in Holmdel, N.J., as Steve Winwood and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers combined to treat the PNC Bank Arts Center crowd on Sept. 11 to vibrant old-school renditions of classic originals and covers.

Winwood opened his nine-song, one-hour set with the Spencer Davis Group classic “I’m a Man,” then proceeded into a spirited version of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes.” Winwood was in good voice, as the 66-year-old marched into his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group Traffic’s “Medicated Goo,” “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” “Empty Pages” and ”Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Winwood and his band (which included Jose Neto on guitar and Paul Booth on sax) made the songs seem like newfound treasure, even though most of these nuggets are more than 40 years old.

A highlight was Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with Winwood on guitar. “Higher Love” stood out as a paean to his popular solo albums from the 1980s. The Spencer Davis Group classic “Gimme Some Lovin’ ” concluded the set with a rousing response from the audience.
Headliner and Rock Hall associates Petty and the Heartbreakers appeared to enjoy themselves immensely, almost as much as the audience did. The 63-year-old Petty was ready for action, decked out in jeans, a salmon-colored jacket, a black shirt and knotted scarf with swirling corkscrew designs, and calfskin boots. The singer-songwriter’s Bob Dylan-esque nasal growl appeared to dangerously approach Captain Beefheart territory at some early moments, but as the set moved forward, his voice acclimated itself to the songs with a wonderful verve. For such a hot night, the man appeared reasonably cool. Setting the tone from the start with The Byrds “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” Petty and company brought the house to their feet. They strolled through their greatest hits with authority, making the music sound fresh, and introduced some new songs from the current release, Hypnotic Eye.

Popular songs such as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “I Won’t Back Down,” Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were met with vociferous approval during the two-hour set. A toned-down “Learning to Fly” was also a standout, with Petty inducing the crowd to sing along. Of the new songs played, “Shadow People” had the most positive response, perhaps due to a Neil Young-infused vibe. Petty paid homage to his idol Elvis Presley in rockabilly style with the Ray Charles tune “I Got a Woman,” another highlight of the evening.

Guitarist and founding Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, who donned a green Mad Hatter-like cover, provided a hint at their successful formula — relax and enjoy the music. Petty and Campbell’s guitar interaction (especially when they both donned Gibson SGs during several numbers) turned their performances into a fiery waltz. Something valuable can be said for a 40-plus-year musical partnership. Not many bands can boast that rarity of commitment. Keyboardist Benmont Tench, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and bassist Ron Blair have also been with Petty for decades, and they made the music soar. Ex-Average White Band drummer Steve Ferrone (a relative newcomer to the fold, harking back to Petty’s 1994 album, Wildflowers) pounded his kit with bravura intensity.

With so many performers today offering too much attitude appearing to be going through the motions, it’s a welcome respite when Petty, Winwood and their collaborators offer more than mere candles against the encroaching darkness — they stand out like the moon and the stars.

— By Donald Gavron

Photos of Tom Petty (top) and Steve Winwood (below) by Chris M. Junior
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