Images Courtesy of Imeh Akpanudosen/2012 Getty Images
Let me be clear. I love Tom Petty. And I don’t mean that in an “Oh I love chocolate ice cream!” or “I love those shoes!” kind of way. I mean I really love him. If I was stranded on a desert island and I could only pick two bands to listen to for the rest of my life I’d pick Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and Tom Petty as a solo act. I can name any Petty song after only hearing one second of the tune (seriously, I’ve been timed), and even though I don’t have a record player I have most of his albums on vinyl. As a true die-hard fan, when I heard that Petty Fest was coming to Los Angeles I was beside myself with excitement.
Musicians, comedians and actors alike take the stage to pay homage to Petty’s enormous list of fantastic songs, by singing these tunes themselves backed up by the Cabin Down Below Band, and they do it for a good cause. Though normally 100% of the proceeds go to Sweet Relief, a foundation that supports struggling musicians, this year the funds were donated to victims of Hurricane Sandy due to the devastating damage on the East Coast. This musical extravaganza, dedicated solely to the great works of Petty, has been going strong in New York City for years now and thanks to the sponsorship from Jameson Whiskey it has at last made its way across the coast to Petty’s favorite city. Finally I was going to be able to go to this night of sincere Petty appreciation, surrounded by likeminded people that had the good sense to recognize the musical brilliance that is Tom Petty.
After a lengthy internal debate about which of my four Tom Petty shirts I should wear to this love fest, I made my way to the El Rey Theatre, impatiently waiting in traffic, listening to Southern Accents on the way, both because it was festive and because it was already in my car’s stereo.
When I walked into the darkly lit theater, the place was packed and buzzing with people of all ages animatedly debating which of Petty’s songs was the best (Trick question. They’re all great.), shooting off facts about the legend (Did you know he was from Gainesville, FL? Yes, I did.), and wondering if the man himself would show up in the end (Sadly, he wouldn’t).
Eventually the curtain lifted and the first low note of “Cabin Down Below” rang out over the ecstatic audience. People put down their BBQ pulled pork sandwiches and started cheering. Forgetting any sense of decorum I usually comport myself with at concerts, I too started jumping up and down, screaming and getting amped up for what I was about to experience.
Then the first guest performer came out.
This was when the obvious but harsh realization settled over me that I was going to be listening to other people sing Petty’s songs. And not people like Bob Dylan, people like Har Mar Superstar, a singer/songwriter who looks like a disturbing cross between Ron Jeremy and Danny DeVito. His rendition of this first song was like watching your plump, balding, drunk uncle grab the mic at a bar mitzvah and start doing impromptu classic rock karaoke. I don’t claim to know whether or not Tom Petty would have been cringing at this sad display, but I was more than willing to do so on his behalf.
Make no mistake, however, the Cabin Down Below Band rocked every single song. They didn’t necessarily give the Heartbreakers a run for their money (really, who can?), but they certainly did them proud.
Still, I tried to reserve my judgment until the Fest really started getting into the swing of things. Harper Simon, son of the famously talented Paul Simon, tackled the next song, “The Waiting,” a personal favorite of mine, the lyrics of which I often scrawled onto my notebooks in high school. His singing was fine, but after he messed up a couple of the words I had to hold myself back from rushing the stage to slap the microphone out of his hand. Steadying myself for what was now clearly going to be an evening of people ruining some of the best songs ever written, I sighed and sat back to watch the massacre.
They played over two hours of hits like, “Listen to Her Heart,” “Runnin Down A Dream,” “Time To Move On,” “Yer So Bad,” “Learning to Fly,” “Breakdown,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and of course “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’.” The best performance of the night goes to “Wildflowers,” sung by Ryan Miller of Guster. He sang his heart out, his competence standing out from the rest of the performers. This is likely because, well, he’s a real singer who knows how to put on a show and carry a tune. Before he left the stage he added, “Petty Fest is always one my favorite nights of the year. Not many people write songs that 30 years later we can have a festival for and still love every second of it.” I wholeheartedly agree about the staying power and influence of Petty’s songs. Can’t say I feel the same about the festival, however.
During “Anything That’s Rock and Roll,” a cut from the Heartbreakers’ first album, Patrick Carney, the drummer from the essential hipster group The Black Keys took over percussion, right before A-lister Johnny Depp ambled on stage with his guitar. “Oh yeah, and Johnny Depp is in our band,” a member of the Cabin Down Below nonchalantly mentioned to the crowd. The audience went crazy, whipping out their cell phones to snap a picture of the actor dressed in a combination of cowboy attire and what looked like left over costume pieces from his days as a pirate. Though people were clearly surprised that Depp had decided to grace the Fest with his slick presence, I was expecting it. Depp played Eddie Rebel, the main character in the “Into The Great Wide Open” music video, and since then he’s stayed friends with Petty. In fact, when Depp opened the famous Viper Room club on the iconic Sunset Strip back in 1993, the first act he asked to play there was Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
Disappointingly, one of the worst performances of the night (and that’s actually saying a lot) was in fact “Into the Great Wide Open.” Justin Bartha of Hangover fame came out to do it, drink in hand, tripping over chords and shouting the words more than singing them. Apparently he identified a little too much with his most famous character. This pitiful belting out of some of the most emotionally charged words Petty’s written was painful to watch. The only time Bartha ever let go of his drink the rest of the night was when he put it down to grope Har Mar Superstar and tousle what was left of the singer’s hair.
Surprisingly, comedian Sarah Silverman did a great rendition of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” She can actually sing and her funny little adlibs in the middle of the song were adorable and quirky and at that point in the night I had already given up trying to take anything seriously.
The evening mercifully ended with the obvious closer, “Free Fallin’.” Every performer from the Fest crowded on stage to sing this song steeped in Angeleno culture. The crowd went crazy with every reference to our shiny city, from the vampires stalking the alleys on Mulholland to the long drawn out days those living in Reseda face. The intense communal gratitude and enjoyment for all things Petty that was felt in this last song was almost enough to make me forget the carnage I witness before it. Almost.
As everyone filed out of the theatre I kept overhearing people talking about what a fantastic time they had. Perhaps it was all the free Jameson. What I really think it was, however, was that this was a festival for the moderate Tom Petty fan. Of course people that don’t particularly like Tom Petty wouldn’t have really enjoyed this night (although I’m not entirely sure those people actually exist), and the hardcore Petty Head, like myself is doomed to spend entirely too much energy fighting back the urge to strangle someone when these Petty imposters stumble over lyrics or slur their words. The average fan who loves his hits, and might not want to kill themselves or even realize when someone sings the wrong words, could definitely go and enjoy reveling in the admiration for this musical rebel. For only $20 it’s not a bad way for the normal enthusiast to spend a night, or even just remind themselves how Petty really is a one of a kind act. The overly-obsessed fan should keep their distance though. As I got into the car on the way home and I put on my Wildflowers CD, my friend said to me, “Really? How can you listen to more Tom Petty?” To which I replied, “I don’t know what concert you were at, but I didn’t get to hear any Tom Petty tonight.”
By: Darianne Dobbie