ALLENTOWN, PA—The Eagles might have christened the brand spankin’ new PPL Arena but Steve Winwood and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers broke the place in and tore the cover off the ball (to use a beloved baseball analogy). Y’know how when you go to see a favorite band, you usually want them to do all the songs you’ve known and loved for years? In Petty’s case, although I admit to loving every single one of his big-time hits, I was more interested in getting knocked-out loaded to the blissful noise of his new Hypnotic Eye, easily his best since Full Moon Fever in 1989 (although I do digs me some Mojo too, his last album in 2010. Come to think of it, I recently visited my daughter on her farm three hours away and, in the car, was reminded yet again what a great album 2006’s Highway Companion is.)
The sound was gut-punch loud but didn’t hurt (I forgot my ear plugs). They only did four songs from the new album. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench are KILLERS. At one point, I leaned over to my +1 Morris (who has played in cover bands with me since high school in the ‘60s) and said, “Who are we seeing tonight? Tom Petty or Led Zeppelin?”
The crowd was hot, the smell of pot so prevalent that Petty mentioned it from the stage. I was feeling hot and sweaty and scared of dehydration (I recently passed out at a blues show) that when the venue pumped up the air conditioning and a nice young lady gave me her water, I rocked anew, oblivious to my advanced age and inexorable closeness to the great beyond.
You know the songs. It just seemed they were all played with a particular verve and new sense of dexterity. Plus, there was a certain amount of hero worship going on, not as much as the messianic conundrum of a Bruce show, but it was there nevertheless.
I wondered what Petty thought as he sat in his dressing room waiting to go on. He had to hear the tremendous love we poured upon Steve Winwood after his opening “I’m A Man,” a song he sang when he was a teenager in The Spencer Davis Group. The place erupted. It was biggest ovation I’ve ever experienced for an “opening act” after a first song. Rock Royalty on display! Be it “Them Changes” by Buddy Miles [1947-2008], Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” Traffic’s “Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” or his solo hit “Higher Love,” Winwood, on keyboards, then rampaging lead guitar, was transcendent. That voice, at 66, is better than ever. That funk, that presence, man, we could’ve gone home after his set and got our money’s worth (so to speak). Oh, and did I mention “Gimme Some Lovin’?”
But Petty was not to be upstaged. His 18-song, 1:45 set was profoundly satisfying. Acoustic versions of “Learning To Fly” and deep cut “Rebel” from Southern Accents were the calms in-between the storms. His cover of “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” was better than The Byrds and segued into “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Petty then looked at the approving crowd and said, “Allentown! At last!” (He was here 25 years ago at the Allentown Fair.)
Did we all sing along on “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down?” Yeah, I guess we did. “Yer So Bad” was strummed on his trusty 12-string. No Winwood jam like in Philly and no cover of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” by The Monkees from 1966 like in Chicago but this show was so damn good, that it didn’t matter what the yahoos did with their cellphones, I just loved being there.