The age of the tribute band is upon us. As the greats from the classic rock era grow old, infirm, or die, the demand for their music remains. No-one goes to a Beethoven concert, then complains that Beethoven wasn’t playing, or conducting, and so with rock, the torch of the original artists’ music is handed from one generation to the next.
With around twenty albums, in various guises, recorded over five decades, there is no shortage of material for Too Petty to delve into. Even more fortunately, Petty was not a flamboyant frontman. A Rolling Stones, Led Zep or Who tribute is pretty much defined by how their Jagger, Plant, or Daltrey looks, beyond that, if you can sing and play convincingly that is enough. A Tom Petty tribute does not have that restriction.
On stage, visually, Too Petty appear to overtly challenge the originals’ image. The lead singer and drummer look as though they should be in a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute, the bass player is a dead ringer for Trevor Bolder from the Spiders From Mars, the keyboard player a Frank Zappa / Rick Wakeman hybrid. So they better be able to play and sing, right? They can.
I have been a fan of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers from the first album, and saw him play for the first time at Knebworth in 78, followed up by the Damn The Torpedoes tour in 1980, and then again in London in 87. They broke in the UK in 76, just as the Punk tidal wave was sweeping all before it.
I had first became aware of him with the release of the first album, in November 1976, the eponymous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which is a traditional rock album. It contained diverse, well written, well- constructed, well played songs. In “American Girl” he had also written a song which would be their signature for an entire career. In Britain the highly influential Fluff Freeman radio show backed it for rock fans – they took to it immediately.
In retrospect the response to Punk from the record company was risible. For the second “You’re Gonna Get it” Album, released in May 78, the band wore biker jackets and shades on the cover and released the punk length, spiky, guitar driven “I Need to Know” as the single. The album was not as strong as the first, rushed to capitalise on the success of the first album, with only “Listen to Her Heart” enduring. But it worked. The trompe de l’oeil was pulled off. The single, and album, were a success, and was accepted by the all- powerful British music critics, they stayed the right side of the music press. The residual rock crowd were impressed, the young punk crowd were not alienated.
I saw them for the first time on June 24th 1978 at Knebworth supporting Genesis in front of a 100,000 fans. In retrospect it was an ostensibly monumental task for such a relatively young band, in practice it was easy. This was no fledgling band of wannabees washed up on the shore by the first wave of punk, instead a group of seasoned stage performers and practiced musicians. It was the biggest test of their careers to date- but one which they took in their stride.
With only two albums behind them, the forty- five minute slot suited them down to the ground. They just played their strongest songs, stretched out “Breakdown” ,and Tom, in his top hat tried to look overwhelmed by the universal mid- afternoon acclaim at the end of the set. Their “stadium” credentials instantly established.
I next saw them on March 7th, 1980 on the “Damn the Torpedoes” tour. Despite management/ contractual wrangles, they had produced their strongest album yet, and the 3.487 capacity Hammersmith Odeon, with its 192ft wide stage, was perfect for them. The place was packed with their fans who knew all the songs, the capacity was big enough to produce a vibrant atmosphere, yet small enough to bottle it. They were sensational, opening with a swaggering, searing “Shadow of a Doubt” , and the mid set quintet of “Refugee/ Listen to her heart/ American Girl/ Breakdown and Too Much Ain’t enough” reaching heights that few artists can match.
So how did Too Petty shape up?
As soon as the chiming introduction to “Listen to her Hear” kicked off the show I knew that everything was going to be just fine. The sound was spot on, the vocals clear and faithful, the harmonies, exact. Too Petty played for just over two hours, but could have played for ten hours, and still missed out some fan favourites. Live, Tom Petty was in his element ,and continued touring regularly, although insufficiently visiting the UK, until his death. He frequently reworked his songs giving Too Petty useful latitude to reimagine some songs, most notably on “The Waiting”. So while being neither a lookalikes band, or musical reproduction perfectionists, they managed to crucially capture the spirit of the music, which is what the fans want.
The surprise of the night for me was, “Yer So Bad”. On record it is routine. Live, Too Petty injected it with vim and vitality to make it one of the highlights of the night, the other being a whiplash version of “I Need to Know”. Songs were picked from throughout the band’s career, and Tom’s solo, albums. There was not a single duff choice there. I had forgotten what a good song, “Anything That’s Rock n Roll” is. My only minor gripe being that a terrific “Running Down A Dream” which segued into “Refugee” might have worked better with “Refugee” first.
What struck me was not only the musical dexterity of the band, but that they played with a smile on their faces. Afterwards they were generous with their time chatting to myself, and other members of the audience. It was instantly apparent that they are fans at heart too. It is a rock n roll show, and a venue like the Flowerpot in Derby is ideal, tight, a bit squashed, and with loads of atmosphere.
I would have loved to have heard “ Too Much Ain’t Enough”, “Woman in Love”, Crawling Back to You” and “It’s Good to be King” included, but could not fault any of the songs that were played.
There is always next time.
Catch them if you can, as soon as you can, with Cyprus Rocks, at which they are appearing 2nd Oct – 9thOct 2019 as good a place as any.