Free Fallin' in SoCal -- Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Live at the Irvine Amphitheatre

Orange County, CA, USA; Friday, August 22nd, 2008

by Kenny S. McGuane

Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine sucks.

It used to be called Irvine Meadows. Been there a few times to see various other acts and every time is a letdown. Don’t get me wrong; it’s never the performer’s fault. It’s the outdoor theater’s fault. It seats uncomfortably about 15,000 people. Just like most other outdoor theaters, the acoustics are god-awful…extraordinarily bad. So bad it often makes it hard to enjoy the music, or rather, always makes it hard to enjoy the music.

Last Friday’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show was no exception.

But there were other factors that made for a less than desirable concert-going experience. It felt oversold. I have never witnessed this many people in one place at once time for one artist. Good news for Tom Petty, bad news for ticket-buyers. We had lawn seats and making it to and from the bathroom was impossible. There were two of the worst girl fights I have ever witnessed…all for the damn bathrooms. These were exceedingly violent and bloody fights. Between the crowds and the inability to distance myself from the fights, there were confrontations that made me very uncomfortable.

Also -- forgive the snobbery -- Tom Petty seems to draw a pretty white-trash laden crowd. Never in my life have I seen so many Southern California lowlifes packed into one spot, aggressive, rude, and drunken slobs who would have picked a fight with anyone they felt had overstepped their boundaries.

So a good chunk of the Tom Petty show I had so looked forward to was a major downer.

Thankfully, despite the caliber of people in attendance and the angeringly bad acoustics, the music was phenomenal. The legendary Steve Winwood opened for Petty and somehow managed to capture the attention of the rowdy crowd. I had secretly been looking forward to Winwood almost as much as Petty. He delivered and played plenty of material from is most recent record Nine Lives while also executing Blind Faith, Traffic, and solo Winwood tunes as perfectly as one would expect of such an accomplished and talented musician. “Higher Love” was insanely good and he had the entire amphitheater singing right along with him.

Once Petty finally hit the stage the crowd was totally pumped and totally drunk. He’s godlike, really, he is.

tompetty_irvine_180For years, any time anybody would mention Tom Petty to me, I would always think, “Eh, I can do with or without him. No biggie.” But then I’d hear a Petty song on the radio or at a party and say to myself, “Jesus. This is a fantastic song.” I react the same way to every Petty song I hear. Friday night’s show was just another reminder of how accomplished, polished, and brilliant the work of Tom Petty truly is.

Given the depth, expansiveness, and popularity of Petty’s catalog, it would be impossible for him to please everyone. He’d have to play four hour sets to pull that off, not that anyone would complain about that. “You Wreck Me,” “Even The Losers,” “Honeybee,” “Won’t Back Down,” and “Last Dance With Mary Jane” were all masterfully executed and sounded just as perfect as the studio versions. Naturally, “Free Fallin’” brought the house down and is especially magnificent when 15,000 people are singing all the words. While Petty didn’t play my personal favorite “Here Comes My Girl,” he did give a stunning performance of what is technically his best song, “Breakdown.” Petty even covered some Traveling Wilburys territory with “End Of The Line.” An evening highlight was a slow-burning acoustic version of “Learning To Fly.”

Irvine has a pretty strict curfew, so all we got out of the Heartbreakers was one encore. That’s probably a good thing; we could have been there all night had the crowd gotten their way.

I wish to god I could see Tom Petty in a small venue, like West Hollywood’s Troubadour. I’m sure it happens, but you probably gotta be someone or have tons of money in order to attend. On the flip side, it must be pretty exhilarating to have been around as long as Tom Petty and still manage to sell out stadiums and amphitheaters all across the country. I can’t even imagine what it feels like to have 15,000+ people in one place at one time…all there to see you.

Whether in an intimate setting or in an annoyingly large setting, when you watch Petty play his perfectly written music and roam around the stage doing his best Jesus Christ impressions, you forget that you’re watching a fifty-seven year old man play his thirty-year-old hits. Instead, you get the feeling that Tom Petty is frozen in time and you’re seeing him exactly as he was in 1977.

Tom Petty’s a damn genius and judging by the variety of people mixed up in that crowd of 15,000, it’s clear that his music is timeless. It transcends almost all popular music fads and that makes him one of the most worthwhile artists of the last thirty years.

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