Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Petty rocks the Super Bowl

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In the four years since Nipplegate, the infamous wardrobe malfunction that guaranteed that MTV will never produce another Super Bowl halftime show, the NFL has played it safe with a procession of classic-rock heroes: Paul McCartney (2005), the Rolling Stones (2006) and Prince (2007).

To this list we can now add Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who outshined them all with a simple but stellar turn at Super Bowl XLII in Arizona Sunday night.

Thanks to their leader’s charmingly low-key and laconic persona and the seemingly effortless anthem nature of many of their songs, it has long been entirely too easy to take the Heartbreakers for granted. Some good radio hits and solid performers onstage, some rock fans might say. But no way are they in the same league as McCartney or the Stones.

Here I have to disagree: An argument can be made that if we set aside flash and pedigree and strictly judge the musical merits, no other American or British rock band has been as worthy of stadium status for the last 32 years as the Heartbreakers.

The group illustrated the full measure of its unassuming powers Sunday by eschewing the medleys that have become standard at these shows in favor of an unadulterated four-song mini-set that showed its considerable range, opening with the driving “American Girl,” striking a mid-tempo but defiant tone with “I Won’t Back Down,” veering off into the psychedelic ether with the lilting “Free Fallin’” and then going out with a bang again on “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

There was no high-tech tomfoolery, just a cooled lighted stage that looked like a Flying V guitar piercing a big red heart. There were no lasers or major explosions, just handheld flashlights given to the crowd. And there were no eye-candy dancers, just some very road-worn musicians in matching black suit coats backed a singer who looked every bit of his 57 years, all playing precisely but passionately.

The group bow that ended the performance was evidence of a band thrilled to be at its peak even as it takes stock of its storied history. This is a process that started with the release last year of the Peter Bogdanovich-directed documentary “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” It continued at the Super Bowl, and it builds to a summer tour that brings Petty and the Heartbreakers to the United Center on July 2nd.

In a move well-timed to take advantage of performing for 140 million viewers Sunday night, tickets for that show go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday for $55 to $99 plus service fees via or by phone at (312) 559-1212.

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Was interesting to see on the 'let's organize a protest vote for the primary for Edwards' blog that people were trying to read into Petty's performance of "I Won't Back Down" as a statement for Edwards.
That's really reaching, considering Petty's rant about El Salvador and politics in another one of his songs, doncha think?

Jim -

How in the world did they clear the Phoenix Stadium field in under 10
minutes following Tom Petty's halftime show?

- Dick Mattingly
Laurel, Maryland

Dear Jim:
Great review! Tom Petty's Runnin' Down a Dream seemed so surreal and emblematic of the New York Giants knocking off New England 17-14. Keep up the good work!

Carla Jenkins

Thank you, Jim, for writing, "Here I have to disagree . . . " about Tom Petty.

I've been a Tom Petty fan since the early '80s -- saw him in a much less tame concert than the Super Bowl show in 1982 or 1983 at Hammons Student Center in Springfield, Missouri -- and I admire him a little more every year for his music and musicianship. Here's a radical statement: He has more talent in his little finger than Mick Jagger ever thought about having, and I like Petty's more laid-back style (well, at least it's laid-back TODAY versus when he was younger and crept around the stage with a kind of mischievous punker look in his eye!).

Plus, lest we forget, he was a Traveling Wilbury like Roy Orbison, so that alone puts him in alea different gue. :)

I thought his performance last night was a little contained, but, judging from the reviews I've read besides yours, I do wish more people had appreciated the musician they were watching.

Anyway, thanks!

Ozark, Mo.

Thanks for pointing out that Tom Petty is a true shining light in American (or any other type) of music. Trying to recall the other performers since Nipplegate, I came up with only McCartney whose show paled in comparison to this Super Bowl performance. After watching the documentary "Running Down A Dream" I became an even bigger fan of Tom Petty than I already was. Kudos to the NFL for noticing such an unassuming and genuine band the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers,

I like the fact that since the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" they have decided to use classic rock artists in the halftime show...but...I have to agree with's almost sickening sometimes to watch Mick Jagger and Keith Richards because they look so old and seem to be going through the motions when they perform...but for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band for that matter they seem fresh and youthful...So in that regard, Carla is right...Tom Petty has more talent in his whole body than Jagger has in his pinky...

I believe they were able to clear the field so quickly because the performance happened before you saw it on TV. When the FOX boys were discussing the game you could hear the band playing in the background. When the guys were done with their comments the next event was the half time performance. I would guess it was already over by the time the tape actually aired.

That being said it was interesting listening to my teenage daughter last night. She has heard TP's name before but did not know any of the music. Her response to the show was big deal he played a bunch of songs no one has ever heard before, at least with past performers they played songs people knew... I tried to explain that all those songs are part of our culture. Luckily my wife backed me up and pointed out that she knew the words to each of the songs and she is not even a TP fan. She just knows them from hearing them so often. Ahh the generation gap...

I'm sure Petty could blister the walls of a small venue, but none of these stadium shows does much for me, especially when they're geared to a lowest common denominator audience.

Might as well bring back the marching bands.

Yes! Let's hear it for marching bands! They could do a tribute to Funky Winkerbean!

Thank you for giving Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' performance during the Super Bowl halftime show a positive review. Too many critics out there missed his ability to focus on the music and instead pegged his show as "dull" for its lack of special effects. I'm glad there's someone else out there who can look beyond the fake elements of performance and realize that he successfully did what he does best: perform his music.

Thanks again,
Heather Stutz


You did a great job reviewing Tom Petty's Super Bowl gig. When one columnist jumps on the "playing it safe" at halftime bandwagon... everyone seems to jump on. You nailed your piece on several counts. It was a super little halftime show. Just enough to get many people rockin' & rollin' and singing along. His catalog is so vast and varied nothing could do it justice in 12 minutes. I loved the part when you said The Heartbreakers have not taken a back seat to anyone in the last 32 years. I saw them on their "Damn The Torpedoes" Tour and am amazed at how they have continued to evolve and indeed get better with age. My teenage sons bugged me to see him in concert in his last two tours. His performances struck me as legendary. My sons and their friends are absolute Petty fanatics! I've seen so many great rock shows. Petty's capture a magic, power, energy and passion that exceed all the other legends. The Bogdanovich directed "Running Down A Dream" is an instant classic. You can't walk away. It should be required viewing for believers and non believers. We were lucky to nab tix for several shows in the northeast this summer. Venues were selling out before our eyes. I really think many younger fans are smart enough to figure out that Petty may be the tail end of the great "stadium status" performers. Long live rock & roll...

Joe Z

I like Tom Petty too but his halftime show was forgettable. Four songs that are his tour staples, so what?! He "outshined" Prince? That's not a credible claim. Are you angling for an interview? How else can you explain your bloated praise?

Bill H
Saint Paul, MN

p.s. no one had anything to say about the halftime show on Monday, the game was that good and the halftime music was just OK

Petty looked and sounded 57 years old.In the last 4 years, Prince was far and away more energetic and talented than any of the "Geezers Of Rock", and I'm 50 myself.
I,m still impressed with the way he just wailed on the guitar that night...

Time to get some younger talent NFL.

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