Editor’s note: Napa Valley Register columnist David Kerns offers his BottleRock insights from Day 2.
It’s a joke, but it’s true. The best Tom Petty tribute band in the world, hands down, is Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Saturday night at the BottleRock Music Festival, on a tour celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary, their 19-song set was a showcase for a distinctly American artist with a knack for hits and hooks, and for sidemen who are as responsible as the front man for the sound, the successes and the fireworks in live performance.
The Heartbreakers are the four originals, Petty on vocals and guitar, lead guitarist and frequent co-producer Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench on keyboards and Ron Blair on bass. Latter-day members are drummer Steve Farrone, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and the Webb sisters, Charlie and Hattie, singing back-up.
Petty showed up looking himself—bearded, shaded, sporting a blue bandana and a long black coat. Campbell and Thurston were in top hats, which would have been right at home in the band’s iconic Alice-in-Wonderland video, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” The Webb Sisters, in all black and continuous, synchronous sway, provided a quantum of feminine energy to the performance.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer’s patter was cheerful, though not much more than a space-holder between songs. For newcomers, during the band introductions he told the oft-repeated tale of how he found Mike Campbell, slaying him with his chops on “Johnny B. Goode” on a beat-up old electric guitar.
They opened, for the sake of history, with “Rockin’ Around With You,” the first song on their first album. With the exception of one later song, “Forgotten Man” from 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye,” the performance was a banquet of Petty’s ‘80s and ‘90s hits gift-wrapped with Tench’s elegant keyboards and Campbell’s stunning guitar work.
The crowd was in it all the way, with the first big sing-along, with Petty’s encouragement, coming in the sixth song, “I Won’t Back Down.” There was a pattern to the delivery of many of the hits – verses and choruses, vocal and instrumental riffs and hooks true to the records, then outros showcasing Campbell and occasionally Campbell and Petty in guitar duos.
At about the halfway mark, there was a departure from the electric fireworks, a three-song country-rockish sequence built on Petty’s acoustic guitar – “Wildflowers,” “Learning to Fly” and “Yer So Bad.” They exited from this respite with the rock and roll apogee of the evening, “I Should have Known It,” and Campbell proceeded to burn the place down.
Mike Campbell may be the most publicly underrated guitarist in rock history, “publicly” because the industry certainly knows about him. Instrumentally, this concert was the Mike Campbell Show; ask anyone who was there. For the rock ‘n’ roll upshift, he strapped on one of his Les Paul Gibsons and suddenly the Heartbreakers were Zeppelin. It was electrifying, in both senses.
Petty followed with two chestnuts – “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” – and finally an encore of “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl.”
This was classic straight-ahead American rock ‘n’ roll played well, the soundtrack of a generation before the dominance of pop and hip-hop and the departures of indie. Judging from the response of the crowd – granted, a bit older than most festival crowds – these songs are enduring, permanently in the collective archive.
Each of the last three years, BottleRock has served up a legend on the main stage – Robert Plant in 2014, Stevie Wonder last year, and this year Tom Petty. Here’s hoping the tradition continues.