My old man was born to rock
But he's still tryin' to beat the clock
-- "You Don't Know How It Feels"
Tom Petty keeps threatening to quit, but he never goes away. At least twice in the last four years the veteran rocker has hinted at hanging up his guitar, but as there are no term limits in rock he just keeps running. He returns to the studio, possibly to make some final career statement, and winds up making yet another formidable rock record (the Grammy-nominated "Highway Companion," the new blues-infused "Mojo"). The tours keep selling. He just won't back down.
Judging by Saturday night's performance at Chicago's United Center, Petty and the Heartbreakers - easily one of the best bands still working - could keep running down their dream for a nice, long time, and God bless 'em. Even when recrafting a slate of greatest hits for umpthousandth time, this bunch of seasoned players has such a command of song and stage - and such visceral, crackling chemistry still between them - that every tune, no matter how ancient, comes alive. These old men were born to rock, and that's all they do. Little posturing, no social statements, just no-nonsense rock 'n' roll.
The two hours of hits ("American Girl," "Refugee," a light acoustic take on "Learning to Fly"), album cuts (the lurid "Honey Bee") and new "Mojo" tracks were completely consistent. This is a collective sound, made by a band. Petty is front and center, but there were four spotlights keeping track of the equal contributors on the United Center stage. Many of the songs are written and assembled to showcase the cohesion. Saturday night's breakdown of "Breakdown" focused the easy elegance of the rhythm section, stretching out that ambling pace for six or seven minutes while Petty led a call-and-response of ooh's and yeah's, as well as Benmont Tench's finesse on the keyboards and guitarist Mike Campbell's own six-string voice.
Petty's no slouch, either. He prowls the stage, taking his share of solos on his trademark teardrop guitar, sometimes leaning into Campbell as he played counterpoint or simply strolling to each side of the stage and flashing his amiable grin. His whiskers are graying, and when the band played a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well," he paused before singing the opening lines, using a comic's timing to drain the lyric of its original acidity and turn it into a self-depricating old-age joke: "I can't help about the state I'm in / I can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin."
The songs from "Mojo" were dropped into the middle of the set - go ahead, fair-weather fans, take a beer break - and while this isn't an album that reaches out and collars you, its exploration of rocking blues is more refreshing than most of what you'll find at the Chicago Blues Festival. "Good Enough" is a sly, slow chugger containing all the musical mastery (dig the double guitar solo) and lyrical bent ("You got a little buzz on / You're kissing in the rain") lifelong Petty fans should love, and "First Flash of Freedom" - which the band had to restart after a moth flew into drummer Steve Ferrone's mouth and threw him off - is a cavernous space, bookended by a slamming series of power chords, in which Campell and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston trade licks in solos that seem as carefully constructed as those on a Steely Dan record.
At least it doesn't feel like a new album made simply for the purpose of providing tour merch. Even mining the catalog and producing the requisite middle-age blues album, Petty and the Heartbreakers remain a vital voice in rock 'n' roll.
The complete set list from Saturday night:
"Listen to Her Heart"
"You Don't Know How It Feels"
"I Won't Back Down"
"Mary Jane's Last Dance"
"Jefferson Jericho Blues"
"Running Man's Bible"
"First Flash of Freedom"
"I Should Have Known It"
"Learning to Fly"
"Don't Come Around Here No More"
"Runnin' Down a Dream"