Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers still got it

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When a band’s been playing music as long as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, you’re bound to draw a crowd.

After an inflated $10 parking fee at Tingley Coliseum, we made our way to the gates, where a growing swarm of people waited restlessly to be let through, jeering the gatekeepers in typical, rowdy Albuquerque fashion.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photo: Tom Petty takes a moment to groove to his band during his concert at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque last week

Beyond the gates was an epic line of even more fans, waiting to slowly cram their way into the venue. They were admitting us in manageable batches and seemed strangely unprepared to handle such a turn out.

And their method of searching bodies was lax at best — a fact you could smell as soon as the lights went out and the band came on. What with the security guards doing their utmost to make sure nobody had too much fun or, God forbid, danced in the isles, and the fragrant smell of contraband in the air, I’m sure many a middle-aged audience member found themselves having flashbacks to the early days of Tom Petty fervor.

The crowd, however, was remarkably diverse in every way. From long, silver hair and concho belts, to ripped up teenage jeans, to sparkling platform shoes and thick eyeliner to cowboy hats and boots, all facets of the state seemed to be converging at once under that unifying umbrella of rock and roll.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-News-Bulletin photo: Mike Campbell, lead guitarist with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, has been with the band since they formed in 1976. Petty called him his co-pilot during their show at Tingley Coliseum last week.

Petty’s set was refreshingly humble. Their piano looked suspiciously similar to the one from my elementary school, their clothing was hobo-chic, and the lack of distracting, flamboyant backdrops made tuning into the music an undiluted experience.

On stage these Heartbreakers were masterful, communicating amongst themselves almost telepathically with simple exchanges and glances. They operated in an effortless symbiosis, creating a rich, powerful music that I’m sure penetrated every body in the crowd deep into their core, including Petty.

Having a coveted photo pass that let me go past the barricades and right up to the stage for the first three songs, I could see the emotion all over Petty’s aged, yet timeless face. He seemed transfixed, possessed by the very music he was creating.

With eyes closed, head bowed and hands grasping the microphone, or with his arms outstretched, soaring across the stage like a golden falcon, he simply let himself go, surrendering to the sound.

And then there were the lyrics. Those soulful, vivid and often esoteric lyrics that rippled out of Petty with a poet’s conviction, branded eternally by that signature voice.

“You’re barefoot in the grass/ And you’re chewin’ sugarcane/ You got a little buzz on/ You’re kissin’ in the rain,” he sang during “Good Enough,” a lesser known song that provoked me to sit and close my eyes so I wouldn’t miss a word.

“God bless this land/ God bless this whiskey/I can’t trust love/It’s far too risky/If she marries into money/She’s still gonna miss me/And that’s good enough…”

Petty didn’t talk to the crowd too much, but as an introduction to “Spike,” he told the audience it was based on a true story about a time when he was in the roughest bar in Gainesville, Fla. There were murderers and drug dealers and mean bikers in that bar, he said, then drawing out the last sentence: “Their were guitar thieves in that bar.”

He covered Bo Diddley’s 1955 “I’m a Man,” and during old classics, such as “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down,” the crowd blew its top — and security slumped up and down the dancer-filled isles with defeated looks on their faces, half heartedly, and ineffectively, ushering people back into their seats.

For their encore, they sang “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” which went right into “American Girl,” and when they left the stage for good after playing a long, satisfying set, the energy was practically visible, vibrating smiling bodies out into the night.


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.