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Steve Feeney

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Posted: September 2, 2014

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers still sound amazing: High-energy crowd, punched up songs at Cross Insurance Arena

Written by: Steve Feeney

Photo by Holly Nunan

The thought of the last day of August slipping slowly away was quickly replaced on Sunday night by the pleasure of seeing some Hall of Fame rockers go all out at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Hearing how good these guys still sound likely reassured many in the crowd that the good times will indeed roll on and on.

One night after appearing at Fenway Park, headliner Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage before the high-spirited crowd, many of an age to have followed the Florida-born rocker from his rise decades ago. Anyone who may have thought guitar-driven rock was dead would want to check their own pulse after Petty and his cohorts started in. This was powerful stuff, drawn from his strong new CD, his long history of hit songs and a tasty cover.

A quick reminder of how much Petty’s music represents the era of rock from whence it came, a hard-charging take on the Byrd’s “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” got things started. The sound of twelve-string guitar, which would reappear from time to time throughout the nearly two-hour performance, rang out above the vast sea of faces in the packed Cross Arena. The leader’s neo-hippie attire and demeanor also helped to set the then-and-now tone of the show.

A classic followed that gave context to the atmosphere in the house. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” combined some hard edges with a sweet refrain to good effect as quick-changing images flashed on a white screen draped behind the band.

“American Dream Plan B” was the first of several numbers from the new album “Hypnotic Eye.” Its socio-political comments were matched by some tough guitar work from Mike Campbell, a standout throughout the show. Most impressive of the new material was “Shadow People,” with its tough lyrics about the state of the nation framed by some excellent guitar trade-offs between Petty and Campbell.

A one-two punch of “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin'” had the crowd singing along, with the latter tune particularly hitting everything just right on the strength of tandem twelve-string guitars. Petty spread his arms at the end as if gliding back to earth.

Pianist Benmont Tench had a moment to shine on the intro to “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” and Petty later switched to acoustic guitar for a few songs, encouraging the sing-along to “Learning To Fly.” The leader’s voice may have shown just a little extra grit at times after nearly a month on the road, but his distinctive way with a song was very much intact.

The band ended with a punched up “Refugee” and an intense “Runnin’ Down a Dream” before topping off an evening full of memorable music with an encore featuring “American Girl.”

Opener Steve Winwood had already been a leading member in three important rock bands by the time he was age 21. He offered tunes from his years with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and Blind Faith as well as a number from his later solo career during his one-hour set.

The tunes benefited from a fine group of backing musicians, The percussionist, called simply Cafe, played a particularly important part in keeping things funky on such songs as “I’m A Man” and “Higher Love” while Winwood (on organ) added his own jazzy feel to “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys.” “Can’t Find My Way Home” brought back memories of a short-lived but not forgotten super group and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” soared on the strength of the leader’s impressive guitar work.

Long recognized for his soulful vocals, Winwood also reminded people of what a fine overall musician he continues to be.

With September just about an hour away, folks filed out of the Arena with enough music dancing around in their head to last them well into the coming change of season.

WHAT: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Steve Winwood

WHERE: Cross Insurance Arena, Portland

REVIEWED: Sunday, August 31, 2014

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