Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers | Royal Albert Hall | London | 20 Jun 2012

Stellar Performance at the Albert Hall...

Thirteen years have passed since Tom Petty last took to the stage in the UK with the Heartbreakers and that was a brief visit for a one-off show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s sad that this latest visit to the country hasn’t seen him playing outside the capital – the headline slot at the Isle Of Wight festival notwithstanding – but the speed at which his two Albert Hall shows sold out might hopefully persuade him to come back soon and for longer.

At Wednesday’s second show, 61 year old Petty demonstrated exactly why he remains one of the top live draws in the States with a dynamic set of material delivered with a passion and zest more associated with artists a fraction of his age. The songs performed encompassed his whole career, including his spell as one of the Travelling Wilburys, his take on a Fleetwood Mac classic, and a guest appearance from one of the English artists that had originally influenced him.

But this was no one man show. Petty, originally from Gainesville, Florida spoke with a genuine warmth and southern charm when he acknowledged his absence from these shores with an ironic “Long time no see, it’s been a while!” Introducing “The Heartbreakers” he described how he had to “fist-fight” Jackson Browne to steal Browne’s then guitarist Scott Thurston and explained how he was the Heartbreaker’s “new boy” given he’d only joined them as recently as 1989. He told how bassist Ron Blair, now returned to the Heartbreakers fold had been his double dating buddy back in his high school days; how Brighton born drummer Steve Ferrone was the band’s English connection whose credentials included a spell with the Average White Band and recounted how he’d known keyboardist Benmont Tench since he’d been about 12 years old. Petty finally introduced Mike Campbell, the dreadlocked and youthful looking guitarist, as his the Heartbreakers, “co-captain”.

The songs performed encompassed Petty’s whole career and represented the very best of American rock from opener ‘Listen To Her Heart’ to an ecstatically received set closing ‘American Girl’ some two hours and ten minutes later. ‘Handle With Care, was dedicated to the other Wilburys “wherever they may be travelling” and was notable for Thurston’s contribution that eerily channelled Roy Orbison’s original vocals. Petty put down his guitar to stalk manically around the stage with maracas during a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’, and fun though this undoubtedly was for Petty, he has such a classy back catalogue of his own songs that I may not be alone in saying I would have preferred to hear something like ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ instead of a cover but that is a minor quibble.

Petty thanked the audience effusively twice, saying how important England had been to him, and how many English musicians had influenced him as a youngster. One of the artists to have done so was then introduced, and entering stage left was non other than a spritely looking Steve Winwood who strapped on a guitar and stepped up to he mic to perform Blind Faith’s ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ while Petty literally stepped out of the spotlight towards the back of the stage and took on the role of sideman seemingly with relish. Winwood then joined Benmont Tench at his keyboards to perform the Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ to complete a two song cameo that oozed with class.

More classic songs followed: including an ethereal ‘Free Falling’ and ‘Learning To Fly’, and an epic, fifteen minute Shakey-esque jamathon of ‘Good To Be King’. If anyone ever tries to tell you that a fifteen minute version of a song that was originally a third of that length must be boring, just refer them to this version on YouTube – footage is probably there by now assuming that camera and phone batteries lasted that long. It was simply a breath-taking performance of the song that I’d have happily listened too for another fifteen minutes.

The set closed with a double whammy of ‘Refugee’ and ‘Running Down A Dream’ which elicited one of the loudest audience responses I can recall hearing at the Albert Hall. A raucous encore pairing of ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ and ‘American Girl’ then rounded off the evening in superb fashion. It had been an epic performance from a prodigiously talented group of musicians led by an iconic singer and songwriter. And, while that may sound like a touch of hyperbole I can assure you it isn’t – it’s simply a fact. Gigs this good deserve to be savoured and long may it live in my memory. Next time Tom, don’t leave it so long and make sure you come back real soon.

Full set list: Listen To Her Heart/You Wreck Me/I Won’t Back Down/Here Comes My Girl/Handle With Care/Good Enough/Oh Well/Something Big/Don’t Come Around Here No More/Can’t Find My Way Home/Gimme Some Lovin/Free Falling/Good To Be King/Something Good Coming/Learning To Fly/Yer So Bad/I Shoulda Known It/Refugee/Running Down A Dream/Mary Jane’s Last Dance/American Girl

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