Shows by improvisational-minded acts are often compared — a la “Forrest Gump” — to opening a box of chocolates, in that you never know what you’re going to get. A Tom Petty performance, on the other hand, is more like a Whitman’s Sampler — you know precisely what you’re going to be offered, laid out with the same precision each time.
As borne out by Petty’s performance in the Big Apple on Wednesday night, that doesn’t make the finished product any less tasty or addictive, but those with a hankering for a little unexpected spice were left wanting. It’s hard to quibble too much the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s repertoire choices — the ringing “Listen to Her Heart” was an ideal opener, and the band delivered it with the proper blend of urgency and plaintiveness.
Petty and guitarist Larry Campbell tapped into a similar vein of resolve in a cover of the Fleetwood Mac chestnut “Oh Well,” and worked up something of a sweat for “Breakdown’s” extended coda. But for long swaths of the two-hour gig, the band — and the frontman — seemed to be operating on cruise control, sapping songs like “Won’t Back Down” and “Refugee” of the needed pugnacity.
While ostensibly promoting his recently-released “Mojo” album, Petty gave the disc’s tunes relatively short shrift, segregating them into a mid-show mini-set that started off promisingly enough with the Allman Brothers-styled “Jefferson Jericho Blues,” but devolved into a sort of mid-tempo miasma of classic-rock riffs that rendered the ensuing four tunes all but indistinguishable.
Petty caught fire in earnest towards the end of the evening, and loosened the reins in a most welcome fashion for a stinging encore version of “American Girl” that harkened back to the Heartbreakers’ stiletto-sharp heyday. In those stirring moments, he proved he can still kick out the jams as ferociously as ever, which made the fallow periods that preceded all the more frustrating.
Tour hits the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 1 and Irvine, Calif.’s Verizon Amphitheater on Oct. 2.