For 30 years, Tom Petty has avoided the tug of nostalgia in assembling his shows: Nearly each of his tours with the Heartbreakers has been accompanied by a new release whose material is firmly integrated among the hits and oddities. This summer, Petty’s on a two-fold mission — celebrating the three decades since their debut recording and working in new tracks from his solo disc “Highway Companion,” which American Recordings will release July 25. Three new songs made it into Tuesday’s set and they are wildly different from each other; they share, however, a desire for musical intimacy that’s a tough sell in a basketball arena.
Petty devoted two-thirds of his 21-song show to hit singles, opening with “Listen to Her Heart” and closing with “American Girl,” but he is reaching for a level of connection with fans that seems to only interest artists once they pass the age of 45 (he’s 55).
His attempt at intimacy — an acoustic segment, favoring songs that play at a lope rather than a gallop, showcasing more introverted material — falls short in places yet never because of a fault in the execution. (Abundant guitar changes stunted the pacing.) Petty has never been one for spontaneity or shtick and his lack of salesman skills hurt him as the audience drifted from rapt on “I Need to Know,” with guest Stevie Nicks leading the vocals, to disinterest three slow songs later when Nicks and Petty were delivering a beautiful and graceful duet on “Insider” that reminded of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Remarkably, the band recovered with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” an equally tepidly paced ballad, but one that plays off striking dynamics between the instrumentalists and one that kicks into high gear toward its conclusion. Energy in the sold-out arena was viscerally changed, but it mostly didn’t matter: Only “Refugee” and “Running Down a Dream” were left before the encores started.
The segment that damaged the pacing included two new songs, “Melinda” and “Square One,” that felt out of context in a triple-decker musical sandwich that included a Nicks-mumbled “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and a gently rendered “Learning to Fly.”
“Melinda” opens at the steady pace of a train as Petty sings about a woman who’s far away yet worthy of him spending all his savings to travel to see her. It draws its musical substantiveness, though, when it suddenly shifts into an angular Steely Dan-ish mode and Benmont Tench is given space to explore a series of block chord solos on the piano and a few washes on the synthesizer.
“Square One” is more pop-oriented and cuddly, a number that sounds like it should have been offered to the Dixie Chicks. It has AC radio written all over it and if its chorus of the protagonist’s tabula rosa approach to romance clicks with listeners it might have a future at radio.
The other rookie, the boogie-pop “Saving Grace,” served as the anthem for the NBA Finals last week — an odd choice lyrically, musically and demographically — but it drives home the point that heroes of the ’70s and ’80s have no choice but to go the sponsorship route to get their new music heard outside the concert venues. Like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and Neil Young — artists who filled their coffers with proceeds from anthems and then had something deeper to say after the auds stopped their fist pumping — Petty appears determined to look forward while delivering a satisfying overview of his recording career.
Bonus points are culled from his continuing to introduce spirited covers that influenced him as a kid. The Yardbirds’ version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” fit the Heartbreakers’ skill set perfectly; Peter Green’s “Oh Well” isn’t quite right for Petty’s nasally tone, but the band marvelously nailed the riffs of the early Fleetwood Mac hit; and “Mystic Eyes,” Van Morrison’s terrifying shot at blending voodoo and psychedelia during his tenure with Them, was one of the evening’s highlights. The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” featured rhythm guitarist-harmonica player Scott Thurston admirably singing Roy Orbison’s parts.
The Heartbreakers are still driven by the wide-ranging guitar talent of Mike Campbell and Tench’s ace keyboard work. They shake up the best-known songs with little touches and late in the evening get to disembowel “You Wreck Me,” modulating the melody from driving rock to a measured clip to an almost ambient soundscape. At the tune’s slowest moments, Campbell produced a solo that drew from Jerry Garcia’s more-inspired work, a nice touch on a night that found Campbell generally working with a meatier tone and flashier solos.
Petty & the Heartbreakers have been an arena act for nearly 90% of their existence and as a leader Petty walks a rare line between commercial and critical viability. Tune after tune Tuesday, it was reminder how much Petty is a crucial and almost inexplicable bridge between the artistic and populist: He’s the step between Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick, Bo Diddley and the Cars, Tim Buckley and Dashboard Confessional.
His 27-date tour, which doesn’t have an L.A. show yet, partners him with the Allman Brothers Band or Pearl Jam on varying bills. And while those two acts have more adventurous experiments in their past, it will be interesting to see whose sound stands up to time better. Don’t bet against Petty.
Petty & the Heartbreakers return to New York to topline Amsterjam on Randall’s Island on Aug. 19.