Thursday, June 03, 2010

Legends on the Rocks

Tuesday evening, Reid and I headed up to beautiful Red Rocks to catch the kick-off of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' summer Mojo tour. After a tailgate picnic dinner with an unbelievable view of rolling green hills and pink-red rock formations - plus a whole lot of happy drunk people - we made the trek to our seats: Row 23, dead center.

You know the show is going to kick ass when Joe Cocker is the opening act. Now 66 (that's rock star years, so he's actually more like 84), Joe can deliver the back-arching-fire-breathing goods with his eyes closed, which they mostly were. While his voice had that scratchy pain thing going on even in his youth, there's something about age that brings a new integrity to his voice - it has grown richer with decades of seasoning.

We couldn't help but note that Joe has basically evolved into an old black man - the highest ranking a singer can achieve, possibly second only to an old black woman. The folks sitting next to us had the same thought. "He looks and moves like a white Fred Sanford," said Friendly Neighbor Guy.

Joe's performance of (one of) his signature songs, "With a Little Help From My Friends", was a personal favorite. With the crowd singing and swaying, it felt like an old-world spiritual. Funny how the images of songs evolve and change as you stumble through this life.

Joe also performed "Unchain My Heart", "Feelin' Alright" and a cover of The Beatles' "Come Together," which he recorded in 2007. Joe is also a Colorado resident, in the wee mountain town of Crawford, and occasionally has garage sales that he announces on the radio. He downed an awful lot of water during his performance and never spoke or acknowledged the crowd once, which was kind of a bummer.

Then, Petty and his Heartbreakers hit the stage and my heart soared, ready to be broken. The only time I've seen Tom perform was during a Johnny Cash show at the House of Blues in LA. Cash casually mentioned that his friend Tom was going to come out and help with backup guitar, if that was okay with us. Petty stepped out sheepishly and did just that - never sang or anything - just there for his back-up gig.

Not on this night! Tom was front and center with his steady partner-in-brilliance, guitarist Mike Campbell, and all the other freakishly talented musicians, including one guy, Scott Thurston, who just had a giant wooden stand that held about 20 harmonicas and a bunch of other instruments; he played each one effortlessly.

Petty is a living legend at this point in his decades-long career and I'm so glad to see him the credit he's due. And you know what? I think he is too. In stark contrast to Cocker, Petty was overflowing with gratitude. He thanked us profusely after each and every song, almost gushing: "Thank you so much! It really means a lot. Thank you!" and so on. It was refreshing and made us cheer louder.

Though my favorite Petty song was not played ("American Girl"), there were plenty of others I could belt out loud, especially "Breakdown" and "Refugee." (Song list at left.) No worries, I knew he had 34 years worth of songs to choose from and a new album to promote - I was just damn happy to be there.

Again, I was impressed with how 'there' he was for the audience. Halfway through the set, he talked about their new album, Mojo, after an eight-year Heartbreakers hiatus and could he play some new stuff for us? We half-clapped, half-groaned and he laughed a little then said, "Just a few songs then after that it will be wall-to-wall hits, I PROMISE." We clapped our end of the agreement and the show blistered on. (And yes, the new stuff kicks ass, especially 'Runnin' Man's Bible.'

The thing about Petty is, he clearly remembers what it's like to be a fan and that counts for a lot. I think it's called integrity and I don't care how many Top 40 stations play his music, it comes through. Petty songs are sneaky like that.

I think the best song of the night was 'Learnin' to Fly' mostly because he let the crowd take over the chorus and it was LOUD. It was energizing be part of such focused collective energy, especially when the words are about fucking up in life and giving it another go, an experience most of us think is exclusive to our lives.
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down, is the hardest thing
My friend, Kathleen - an avid music fan herself - told me once that whenever she hears a Petty song, she thinks of me. It's one of my favorite compliments of all time, right up there with the time my friend, Marjike, was driving through Germany, heard Johnny Cash on the radio and called me immediately; it warms my heart just to picture it.

Big thanks to Reid and all the music gods that lined up for this amazing show. What a great way to launch summer in Colorado.

For more awesome photos from the opening night show, go straight to the source.

(Image Credits: Joe Cocker by Cory Morse/The Muskegon Chronicle; All Petty photos from

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