Monday, June 25, 2012

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers @ Royal Albert Hall

Just got back from the UK after spending slightly over a week there. Saw the sights I wanted to see, ate what I wanted to eat, and most of all, managed to get the albums I was setting out to find. Also went to Heddon Street, to the spot where the Ziggy Stardust cover was shot 40 years ago -- there's a commemorative plague there now. There are tons of record shops in London, many of them specializing in certain specific genres. As for HMV, many outlets around the country have closed down, but the big one along Oxford Street is still up. Lots of stuff too; I got all the new releases there -- Joey Ramone's posthumous and very good ...Ya Know?, Chris Robinson Brotherhood Big Moon Ritual (only seven songs, but full of long, awesome jams), and the reissues by Paul Simon (Graceland), McCartney (Ram) and Bowie (Ziggy).
My rarest find was Bruce Springsteen's The River, from the Japanese limited 'reissues' series that came out back in '05. Only 8pds! I stumbled upon it in this place called Reckless Records while trying to look for Sister Ray Records, which was actually along the same street. The best record store experience I had was at Rough Trade West located in quaint Notting Hill, where the owner recommended me to buy the debut albums of Television and Suicide. He played the latter over the speakers and I was immediately blown away. We got to talking a bit about New York punk and post-punk stuff.
I don't really do 'holidays' anymore. The purpose of this trip was seeing the concerts, four in five days. I've not done this many in such a short span. It was gonna be tiring, with the traveling between cities and all, but it was gonna be fun. Having Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen all in UK during the same week is like witnessing the solar eclipse or something. Seriously. Three classic American bands. It happened just last week, and it'll never happen again. Ever. Their Isle Of Wight headlining slots were just icing on the cake. The real draw was their own non-festival shows they did.
Monday, 18 June 2012. The Royal Albert Hall. What can I say about this place? Many greats have played there. It looked magnificent from the outside. But walking into the hall itself gave me extreme goosebumps. I felt like I just stepped into a sacred, holy place. From the third floor balcony where I was, it was breathtaking looking out into the box seats and the arena floor. The view of the stage was surprisingly good, for 60 quid. Unrestricted, that is if you lean forward pressed against the balcony rail. The opening act was Jonathan Wilson. I only knew him previously as the guy who produced Dawes' second album last year. He's got mainly a Laurel Canyon sound going, with some jam-band, Southern rock styles thrown in. Very chilled, mellow vibe throughout the set. The place wasn't packed yet, and the audience was quiet and respectful. 
The main event started on the dot. The band came out onstage in the dark. As they launched into Listen To Her Heart and the stage lights came on, I couldn't believe how close to them I was. Essentially a side view, but you could see the expressions of the band's faces. From the get-go, it looked like they were really happy to be there. Tom especially. At same points, he was clearly taken aback by the majestic view of the hall in front of him. I could also see the band interacting, smiling to each other. It was a total joy to watch. Tom takes his time between each song. He and Mike Campbell change guitars after every song, and usually they like using the vintage guitars (I love it when the Rickenbackers come out). He feels like he's in no rush, and gets really settled in first before counting off to the next song. And when the music kicks in, I swear I've never heard a band this tight. I said last year that Bob Dylan's backing band was the tightest I've ever seen yet. The Heartbreakers just took the top spot in my book. Each one of them are consummate professionals of the highest musical caliber.
The sound mix wasn't perfect at the beginning, but it got better and better. And very loud too, considering that I was sitting close to the PA stack aimed directly at the side audience. The songs definitely sound better live. It was pretty much a greatest hits affair. The Waiting wasn't played though, it would've seemed very appropriate given the fact that this was their first UK show in 13 years. One of the very few deep cuts was Something Big, which had Tom taking the main solo. He makes for a better-than-average guitar player himself. Handle With Care was dedicated to The Traveling Wilburys, wherever they might be; and Scott Thurston nailed Roy Orbison's parts. The cover of Fleetwood Mac's Oh Well was great (listen to the Live Anthology boxset for proof), and Tom mentioned Peter Green as one of their British heroes. Don't Come Around Here No More in the middle of the set was an absolute monster (the strobing lights were used to great effect during the climax). So was Here Comes My Girl -- Tom isn't able to hit the high notes anymore, but still it was great to finally hear it. I love love love the outro.
Now, Mike Campbell. The MVP of the show. He melted faces everytime he took a solo. From Oh Well to the 10min-plus version of It's Good To Be King, to the newer cuts from Mojo like Good Enough and the Led Zeppelin-inspired I Should Have Known It. The electrifying double-header came at the end of the main set, Refugee and Runnin' Down A Dream; these two in particular are best when played live. One interesting thing I noticed was how the band finished their songs, they were all splendid, a lot of oomph to them, even more so during the encore. The second MVP is of course, Benmont Tench. One of the best backing keyboardists in rock & roll; an economical musician, not too flashy, plays what needs to be played, and instinctive as hell. Without these two guys (Ben and Mike), there would be no Heartbreakers. And then you have the rhythm section of Ron Blair and Steve Ferrone, who got a huge reception when Tom introduced him as the only British in the band. From my vantage point, I was able to see clearly every drum hit. Steve's playing style, similar to Levon Helm's, is so incredibly fluid.
Though there were plenty of standing ovations, the sold-out crowd still seemed quite tame. You would think that those sitting on the floor would get up and dance early on, but there was nothing of that sort, save for one or two hardcore fans doing it along the aisles. From what I recall, it was only after the beautiful sing-along of Learning To Fly (stripped-down, acoustic rendition) that the audience was fired up. There wasn't much singing around where I was sitting though. Yer So Bad was fun, and it was surprisingly well-received. The gig was short, clocking in at just under two hours, and it left us wanting more. But it sure was memorable. The atmosphere couldn't have been better. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers performing at the Royal Albert Hall has been a long time coming. It was a match made in heaven.
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
Free Fallin'
It's Good To Be King
Something Good Coming
Learning To Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin' Down A Dream
Mary Jane's Last Dance
American Girl