Friday, June 27, 2008

learning to fly

well, i started out down a dirty road
started out all alone
and the sun went down as i crossed the hill
the town lit up, the world got still

i'm learning to fly, but i ain't got wings
comin' down is the hardest thing...

went to see tom petty and the heartbreakers at the hollywood bowl on wednesday night, thanks to my pal steve, who reviewed it for the l.a. times. (above photo by ken hively taken from that review.)

it was a really nice show. they played about two hours under a hazy june night sky. above us, way up on the hill, glowed the lights of dj paul oakenfold's house. and right in the box next to us was natalie maines of the dixie chicks with her kids and actor husband, adrian pasdar (nathan petrelli, "flying man" on heroes), who talked annoyingly loudly during some of the more subtle numbers petty played. but i was too irritated to be polite, and i didn't want to ruin the vibe by telling him to please shut the fuck up. (thankfully, they eventually left.)

anyway (gratuitous celeb refs aside), the show started with "you wreck me," from petty's 1994 solo album, wildflowers. it's technically not a tom petty & the heartbreakers album, but heartbreakers guitarist mike campbell and keyboardist benmont tench both played on it, and so did then-HB bassist howie epstein, along with drummer steve ferrone, who joined the band in '95. everybody but epstein (who died in 2003) was on stage wednesday, along with original HB bassist ron blair and longtime rhythm guitarist/harmonica player scott thurston.

but the highlight for me came closer to the end of the set: "learning to fly." the song is from 1991's into the great wide open, and it was cowritten by jeff lynne. it has all the elements of petty's best stuff, that folk-rock jangle, that heartfelt raspy tenor, that blend of mournfulness and hopefulness, that soaring pop feel. more than any other number, it captured the essence of the night -- of a middle-aged band that's been through its cycles of triumphs and tragedies. once pioneers of a new kind of old-fashioned rock, now settled comfortably into classic-rock status, but still fully alive. not that i ever felt like the band was on autopilot, but there was the perhaps inevitable feeling that they've played these songs before -- and still do so lovingly, expertly, even joyfully ... if not with much sense of challenge (although they do change things up, probably to keep from getting bored). but with "learning to fly," that sense of routine quality was replaced by some real emotion in the moment. petty's sincere, understated vocals really resonated with those twin notes of world-weariness and inexperience he does so well. and the simple lines made me think about how far you can travel and still feel like you don't know anything.

well, the good old days may not return
and the rocks might melt, and the sea may burn

i'm learning to fly, but i ain't got wings
comin' down is the hardest thing...

after the opening number came such beloved classics as the byrds-like "listen to her heart," for which petty played a lovely white teardrop guitar, "i won't back down," "even the losers," and the most excellent "free fallin'." i was coming back from a bar run during "even the losers," and i heard a guy in the audience yelling for "free fallin'." so, that was the very next number they played -- i was totally psyched for anonymous yelling guy.

then came "last dance with mary jane," with some expansive harmonica work by thurston and nice guitar conversation b/w petty and campbell, who is one of my favorite rock guitarists of all time. his playing is just so gorgeous and evocative and versatile, from clean, lyrical stuff for the ballads, to soul-piercing slide on the bluesier numbers, to breathless, fiery runs on the rockers. sigh.

the band was in a kinda bluesy bag this time, moreso than when i saw them at the bowl in 2006. they did a tune called "sweet william," which petty said was from a european EP released a decade ago. it was just ok, but interesting to hear them do that sort of midtempo-to-thrashing blues-jam thing. then came the traveling wilburys' rambling, strangely optimistic "end of the line," reminding me fondly of that great late-'80s supergroup of petty, bob dylan, george harrison, roy orbison, and jeff lynne.

at some point, campbell busted out his double-necked guitar, and i realized 'round about then that these guys had more guitars than i have pairs of shoes -- and that's sayin' something.

steve winwood was the opening act -- we just caught the end of his set, a blazing trio rendition of traffic's "dear mr. fantasy" -- and he reached back into his own classic-rock past to do blind faith's "can't find my way home" and the spencer davis group's "gimme some lovin'" with petty & co.

after that came the only 21st-century petty tune they played: "saving grace," a sprawling traveling blues-rocker from 2006's highway companion, with more axe interplay b/w tom and mike. then it was back to wildflowers for "honey bee."

a shaggy mountain man in a nudie-style western shirt, petty -- whose talk was mostly limited to a lot of "thank you very much" and rote stuff about how great it was to be back in their hometown w/friends and family backstage, etc. -- then said they were gonna do a full moon fever song they didn't often do (though i'm sure it's in the set list for the whole tour, like "sweet william"). and they offered up a really bluesy take on "a face in the crowd," with campbell working the slide on that double-neck to lonely, chilling effect, and tench getting in some flourishes of his own. lovely. (this is the point where i really wanted to smack the actor next to us, but i didn't.)

at last the set hit its stride. they played a languid, kinda funky "you don't know how it feels" -- with every stoner around us toking up for the line "let's roll another joint," natch -- and then the aforementioned "learning to fly," followed by "don't come around here no more," with its mellow swirl of drumbeat and jangle crescendoing into a taut runaway guitar line. they ended with "refugee" and left the stage, but a single shining spotlight let us know (as if we didn't) they'd be back.

during the wait, i speculated with LAT scribe geoff boucher over what they'd play. he voted for "breakdown" and "american girl." i said, yeah, "american girl," but there's also gotta be "runnin' down a dream." so out they came, and sure enough, "runnin' down a dream" was the first tune. i rule! then they did an expansive take on them's "gloria" (also played last time i saw them), with petty doing his patented loser-in-love bit during the middle part. and of course, one for geoff, they closed with "american girl."

that 1977 tune is such a touchstone for petty fans, and such a part of rock 'n' roll canon (having been covered by everyone from def leppard to the goo goo dolls to pearl jam ... not to mention the strokes ripping it off for "last nite"), that it's sort of hard to believe it didn't even chart in the u.s. when it first came out. it's the kind of irony that seems suited to petty, who has a knack for playing up the hard-luck side of life, even when he's sitting on top of the world. after all, he became a rock hero soon enough ... and never looked back.

well, some say life will beat you down
break your heart, steal your crown
so i started out for god knows where
but i guess i'll know when i get there

i'm learning to fly around the clouds
but what goes up must come down

i'm learning to fly, but i ain't got wings
comin' down is the hardest thing
i'm learning to fly around the clouds
but what goes up must come down

i'm learning to fly
i'm learning to fly...

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