Who knew that the highlights of a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show would be provided by Steve Winwood?
I mean, at first, it wasn’t looking that way. Winwood, the support act for Petty’s tour, was in the midst of a competent but at times dull hour-long Latin-flavored set at Sunrise’s BankAtlantic Center. His band’s best element to that point was Paul Booth, a standout multi-instrumentalist. The thing is, Booth had a couple of flute solos.
And the thing about flute players is….
… we tend to make fun of them.
But Booth acquitted himself on both those solos and his sax work.
Then Winwood’s group — usually a six-man percussion-heavy unit — whittled itself down to three, with Booth on keyboards and Richard Bailey on drums. And they kicked off “Mr. Fantasy”.
And that’s when Winwood became the king of the guitar for the night. Coaxing notes out of his Fender the way Eric Clapton — his showmate at one point this year — can, Winwood was blowing the roof off the place. The crowd seemed pleasantly surprised in its ovation.
Nor has Winwood lost an ounce of that remarkable voice that has held strong since his days as a teen lead singer in the Spencer Davis Group. Joining Petty and co. on stage for both “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Gimme Some Lovin'”, Winwood actually lifted the show — already at a pretty high level — into the rafters.
Now, Petty was no slouch this night. He was in fine form, clearly enjoying being back in his home state of Florida, and with the crowd in the palm of his hand from “You Wreck Me”, he wheeled the Heartbreakers through a set of recent, classic and cover songs.
Me, I do also go to a Petty show to see two of my favorite musicians — guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Campbell was his usual, remarkable self, never overly flashy, with a penchant for the economy of notes, whether it was the staccato of his “American Girl” solo or his always wild work on “Don’t Come Around Here No More”.
(A side note. Tom, sir, please consider reinstating the top hat for this song. It loses something without the top hat. I thank you.)
Few have as great an understanding of how keyboards — and especially piano — fit into rock songs as Tench. He knows what works for Petty, and yet somehow has a classically trained pianist’s sound. Never wonder why he’s constantly in demand for backup work.
Aside from the Winwood bits, the highlight of Petty’s show for me was actually his work on “Saving Grace”, his most recent single from “Highway Companion”. He’s shaped it into a tough, hard-nosed song that I simply can’t get out of my head. Surprised me — I’m a fan of his early stuff, but on this night, a new sound really worked.