Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tom Petty, Jackson Browne; magic in the desert

Life is hard, no doubt.
But, on occasion, it can be a blast.
Such was the case last Saturday night (Oct. 21), when I was lucky enough to catch full-length sets from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Jackson Browne at Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
On a beautiful autumn night, it wasn't hard to enjoy two Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famers in action under the stars on a comfortable night.

Of the two artists, headliner Petty & company delivered the stronger set. As part of his current 30th anniversary tour, Petty and his strong supporting cast (notably lead guitarist Mike Campbell, singer-multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and keyboardist Benmont Tench) played many of their best-known songs before an adoring crowd. And, at least for this listener, the finely-tuned troupe played Petty's three best rockers too: "I Need to Know" (lead vocals courtesy of Stevie Nicks), and later in the night, "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down A Dream" in a back-to-back blowout.

This was no mere bit of nostalgia. Rather, the band really rocked. Petty, smiling and greeting the audience after just about every song, really seemed to be having a great time. This was not the intense kind of experience that greets you at a Pearl Jam, Neil Young or U2 show, but rather the kind of festive celebration associated with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's marathon-length encores that were so fun in the 1980s.

Honorary Heartbreaker Nicks took to the stage several times to play with Petty, including her first stint joining the group to play the classic "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around." She proved her pipes still carry that magical fire, and it was consistent magic throughout the night when she and Petty would sing together, including on the acoustic-styled "Insider."

Other highlights of the night? Although he has apparently played it live before, for me the inclusion of George Harrison's Traveling Wilburys gem "Handle With Care" was incredible. Always among my favorite songs, it was a moment where I wanted to sing, but didn't because you wanted to take in each magic note washing over you.

Opener Jackson Browne was in fine voice and came with a strong band, but his set focused a bit to heavily on recent material that was often lost on the crowd. When he did connect on all cylinders, it was with his better-known material, notably the forceful "For America" and hits such as "Running on Empty" and "Doctor My Eyes." But missing were great cuts such as "Tender is the Night" and "Boulevard." When playing 70 or so minutes, he could have offered a more balanced mix of old and new.

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