By R. David
Published June 28th, 2013
It’s an odd-numbered year so that means Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will be back in Milwaukee, playing at the Marcus Amphitheater during Summerfest. OK, they’re not on quite that routine of a schedule for the annual lakefront music festival, but pretty close. Their performance on Friday will mark the 12th time since 1999 the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have performed as headliners during Summerfest. As a lifelong fan of both Petty and Summerfest, I have made it a point to attend all 12 of these shows.
There is a reason Petty is continually invited back to Milwaukee to play for summer audiences: The adoring reaction he constantly receives at the Marcus Amphitheater is unlike any I’ve seen at the venue. While any artist playing to paying fans should expect wild applause and to have their songs lovingly sung back to them, the sheer volume of audience participation and appreciation I have witnessed at multiple Petty concerts is unparalleled by any other act I’ve caught in all my years of Fest-going.
One reason for this is that Petty has amassed such a huge songbook of instantly recognizable hits that everyone in attendance will likely know the words to nearly every song he plays. Petty has also tailored his setlists for the last decade or so to focus heavily on that wide catalog of hits. Even when he’s out in support of a new album, he is careful not to neglect the hits in favor of the newer material.
There is a certain type of concert-goer – and I would guess they’d be in the majority – who would be glad to hear that. After all, how many people going to a Tom Petty show would be happy to go home without getting the chance to sing along to “Free Fallin’” or “American Girl”? And just as an artist’s hits are expected to flow at Summerfest, so too does the beer. Summerfest is a party crowd looking to belt out the choruses to their favorite songs; not exactly the best place for an artist to try out new material or challenge the audience with deep album cuts.
But then there are Petty’s die-hard fans who are left to essentially see the same show year after year; paying handsomely to see their favorite artist yet again, knowing the best they can hope for is maybe two or three songs they didn’t see last year or the year before.
I sympathize with the plight of any hit-heavy artist in this situation. Your audience wants and expects the hits, but you have an entire catalog of other songs – and an entire concern of other fans – you then neglect by default. My buddy Nick Michalski and I first saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live in Milwaukee in 1995 at what was then the Mecca Arena when we were just sophomores in high school. They played a varied and eclectic setlist; one that mixed new material (this was the “Wildflowers” tour) with old, and hits with key album tracks. One of the things I loved about the first few Petty shows I saw – and one of the main reasons I kept going back every chance I got – was how varied the setlists were. Over the last few years I’ve found myself less enthralled with each of Petty’s stops at Summerfest as he has increasingly moved away from that variety.
The good news for fans like me however is that it appears Petty has finally grown as tired of putting on a Greatest Hits show as many of his hardcore fans are of seeing it. From the start, the intent of The Hearbreakers’ current tour has been to dig deep into their catalog and rediscover songs they haven’t played in years. They have been playing multiple night stands at a series of legendary clubs across the country, and are also hitting some major festivals along the way.
Nick and I have had long, spirited conversations about why Petty has seemingly regressed into a Greatest Hits act in recent years, what he can do to make his shows more interesting for his hardcore fan base, and if festival shows like Summerfest are the appropriate venue for an artist to purposely avoid some of their biggest hits in favor of less-known gems. So on the eve of The Heartbreakers’ return to Summerfest, Nick and I once again find ourselves questioning if Petty can return to his former live glory.
Ron David: Holy fuck! Petty’s playing “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” on this tour!
Nick Michalski: Awesome! I sure wouldn’t mind catching some of these club shows.
RD: Something tells me that he’ll feel compelled to go with a more standard, greatest hits set at places like Summerfest. As long as he keeps a few deeper cuts (namely “Tweeter” and “Rebels”), I’ll consider it a bonus. Who knows though, he might say ‘fuck it’ and keep things rare even at the non-theater gigs. But I kinda doubt it.
NM: Yeah. It sure would be sweet though. He must realize many fans don’t want just the hits all the time. He should play at least a handful of deep cuts.
RD: He always plays one or two per tour as a matter of routine. The problem is his sets don’t really change much during the tour so whatever deep cuts they play end up being THE deep cuts of the tour. He has said in recent interviews that he’d like to shake things up more, but unless it is announced prior to the tour that they will be doing shows with fewer hits, I think they are afraid just pulling them out without warning would stiff with the general audience. I can see a show filled with rarities working in these club settings, made up primarily of die-hard fans; but at something like Summerfest, where 90% of the audience is just there to party with the hits, it would probably flop. I wish Petty were more like Bruce [Springsteen] and would just play whatever he wants and be confident that the band’s talent and energy will carry the day
NM: Exactly. We’ve had this debate before. Petty is well–established. He shouldn’t have to kowtow to a bunch of drunken morons
RD: True, but I can understand why he might feel like he has to. Like I said, a few more rarities and surprises is all I ask. I understand the hits have to be well-represented, and frankly I want most of the big hits too. Part of the problem is that they only play 2 hours and then get the hell outta Dodge. Very workmanlike. I would love to see them stretch the show out because they feel compelled to play more than the bare minimum, but maybe that’s an unfair expectation or standard to hold them to as most bands do typically play a 2 hour show. But I think Petty and Co. could take a page from Springsteen and give their catalog and fans a workout. Who knows, maybe they just don’t feel it that way anymore.
I think the main solution would be for him to play theaters in Milwaukee for once, instead of always playing Summerfest. But that probably won’t happen because Milwaukee is considered a “secondary market” as far as concert promoters are concerned. Its places like New York, L.A., and Chicago that are going to have enough of a fanbase population to warrant a 5-night club stand. Plus, I’m sure Summerfest is extremely lucrative considering he seems to always sell out the Marcus.
NM: Yep. If he wanted to play different stuff though, he could. Some folks probably stay home because they’ve seen the same set a few times already.
RD: They just finished a five-night stand at the Beacon Theater in New York. It was the best setlist I’ve seen from them in forever – maybe ever. “Spike”, “Honey Bee”, “Time to Move On”, “Girl On LSD”, “13 Days”, tracks from “Mojo” and “She’s the One”, plus a few hits mixed in for good measure; I would have loved to see any of those shows. But I bet they’d have tanked at Summerfest. There’s nothing worse when you’re a huge fan of a group and they play some amazing, random cut and you see a sea of people bolt for the bathrooms and beer tents. I mean, their loss and F them for just coming for the hits, but that stings to see as a fan; I can only imagine how the band feels.
NM: Festival or not, they’ve got to realize a lot of their fans are younger and want to see a band challenge their eardrums and let it rip. Just think of all the legendary, iconic performances in rock and roll… It doesn’t come from doing drowsy songs like “Free Fallin’”. The more eschewed the better… Live a little Petster!
RD: Ha-ha. Well, artistically speaking, and for die-hard fans, you’re definitely correct. But I imagine 90% of the people at a gig like Summerfest are there to see “Free Fallin’”, et al. Festival shows tend to be judged on how big a sing-along the concert is. I think that’s why he’s proven to be so successful there. He has a catalog that lends his shows to that sort of success. It may be unfortunate for fans like us, but if he showed up and only played three big hits, I think he’d lose most of that audience in that setting. They’re there to party, drink, and sing; it’s just not in the same league as those club gigs he’s been doing. So, despite my own preferences, I get that and I sympathize with Petty’s dilemma where a concert like this is concerned. It seems he’s in full experimental mode right now, but he’s playing the sort of show where he knows he can’t listen to his heart, as it were. It’s his own fault, really. If he had been the sort of performer from the beginning who just played whatever he wanted, his audience would expect that. But he’s already set such a precedent of being a human jukebox over the last decade-plus, that is the sort of reputation he now has to uphold. Every time I hear a ‘fan’ or radio personality praise his show or recommend that someone buy tickets to an upcoming gig, the first thing they say is something along the lines of, “you’ll know every song,” or “he plays all the hits!”
NM: Yeah, well on the contrary, I’d be a lot more interested in catching Petty shows if there was some mystery about what he was going to play. I’m not saying pull an “Adore”-era Smashing Pumpkins and ignore your entire catalog, but “Runnin’ Down a Dream” would be way sweeter if it weren’t a standard at every show. I think Petty’s too skittish. Mix it up from show to show, like Springsteen who clearly works to keep things fresh. Casual fans don’t even own “Echo” because he never plays it!
RD: Well, I think casual fans don’t own “Echo” because they’re just that: casual fans. And “Echo” doesn’t have any hits the size of “I Won’t Back Down” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” so it wouldn’t even register on their radar. But yeah, it’s a brilliant album. I think it just got overlooked because, as it was for a lot of classic rock artists around that time, radio was moving away from pushing their new music. Even the record companies were little help in promoting aging rockers’ new releases. And they’re the very people who stand to benefit the most from the artist continuing to have hit records! The Springsteen comparison is an apt one, but again I think Bruce set the precedent long ago that he was just going to play whatever. Even today his setlists are just suggestions; they always change as the show gets under way. But he has a fan base that expects that, and when casual fans do go expecting all the hit and get relatively few, they bitch. But with Springsteen you also get an exhaustive performer who leaves it all out on the stage. I think if Petty and Co. were on that level of energetic, passionate, and inspirational performers, they could get away with playing a lot more obscure shit because the performance would carry the day. They are an extremely solid unit of talented musicians and they still sound as good as, if not better than, they always have. But they rarely seem inspired to take their show to any sort of next level. And that’s fine. There’s a place for a band that just plays really great, but it’s probably not the band that will see an entire amphitheater follow them through a lot of obscure rarities.
NM: I can see that, but play 50 or 70% hits and mix the rest up from show to show.
RD: Agreed. Another thing is they only play between 18 and 20 songs, so if they play even 5 rarities, there’s your 70%. And that seems to be pretty much where they’ve been at. I’d like to see them add more songs to the setlist, and make those additions some of the more obscure stuff. That way they can still keep all the hits they’ve been playing, and everybody’s happy. They would just have to consider breaking the 2-hour mark to do that. They also play a cover or two as a matter of routine. They should dump those. They just take up valuable real estate in an already too-short show.
NM: Their catalog is just so deep. Even 5 rarities I’d be happy with. I think even some of the more casual fans would already know a good amount of those just as album tracks. It sounds like they’re making progress but are still a little shy about tracks that weren’t major hits. But some of those are still great, fairly well known songs. That’s how you end up with a Yellow Ledbetter. Not a single, but a live staple that becomes a single.
RD: Well, to their credit, they’ve never been shy about pimping out the songs they really have affection for. I’ve seen songs like “Walls” and “Angel Dream” quite a bit over the years despite them not taking off as singles. And speaking of songs from “She’s the One”, “Grew Up Fast” is another great, overlooked track that should be dusted off. I can see them using that as a centerpiece song; the one they stretch out a bit and jam on, like they’ve been doing with “Good to Be King” for so many years now.
NM: Totally. And mix up the “Wildflowers” songs they do play.
RD: And dig into Echo& Last DJ too.
NM: Totally. I don’t mean to rail on Petty. I just feel like he’s underestimating how much of a leash his fans will give him; and his sets seem more dictated by an antiquated studio-album-hits machinery that just isn’t enforced in the 21st century, especially for these established national-treasure bands like The Heartbreakers.
RD: I hear ya. The thing is, Petty is one artist that I’d actually be cool with getting most of those hits each time out – I’d take “I Won’t Back Down”, “Mary Jane”, and “Refugee” at every show and never get tired of them – but I just wish he’d color in the margins around those hits and ad some flavor in between all the standards. It seems like that’s what they are trying to do. Though it hasn’t meant longer shows with more songs, unfortunately; and they seem to be reverting back to their more standard, hit-laden setlist for their festival gigs, so that doesn’t bode well for Summerfest. I just really don’t want a repeat of the last few years of a show seemingly on autopilot. They’re too good for that and have such a deep and varied catalog that it’s a sin to not explore it.
NM: I think he’s done hit parades for so many years people just expect that by default.
RD: Exactly. But how do you start to change the perception of yourself you worked to create? He’s doing the right thing by playing club and theater gigs filled with deep cuts. Like I said, I think if he’d play The Pabst of The Riverside, or even the Bradley Center here; anywhere but Summerfest for once; he could get away with more experimental setlist. I looked back at our setlist from that show in ’95, not only was it amazing, but it’s so far from what he’s been doing for the last decade.
NM: Yeah, that was a great show. I criticize because care.
RD: Me too.
Nick Michalski is terrific writer and all around great guy. Read his thoughts on baseball, music and beer at www.thebrewersbar.com and follow him on Twitter @MichalskiNick.