Petty Fest SF, with Boz Scaggs, Lucinda Williams, Nick Valensi, Har Mar Superstar, Butch Walker, Two Gallants, and (Many) More
Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013
Better than: Singing along to classic rock radio.
The concept behind last night's Petty Fest concert at the Fillmore was simple: Get a bunch of famous and semi-famous performers together to faithfully cover a couple dozen Tom Petty songs. And because A) there are only approximately 1.5 Americans who don't enjoy the music of Tom Petty, and B) most of the performers were decent-to-good, the concert was a solid success. Even the ways in which it failed were entertaining.
The show at once underscored the simplicity of Petty's music and the unique alchemy that Petty himself brings to it. The backing band for the night, known as the Cabin Down Below Band, had zero trouble emulating -- to an alarming degree -- the arrangements of, say, "Refugee" or "American Girl" or "I Won't Back Down." But singing Petty well proved to be another matter. That perfect, smoky whine in Petty's voice eluded many of the singers onstage last night -- although a few, like S.F. rocker Chuck Prophet, Aimee Mann, and the Strokes' Nick Valensi got it just right. (Prophet, by the way, sounds a lot like Petty even when singing his own songs.)
It didn't help that many of the singers last night weren't actually singers. Taking a turn on "Don't Come Around Here," for example, was Jon Heder -- the actor who played Napoleon Dynamite. We don't really want to pick on him, but suffice it to say he should stick with acting. (He made up for a lack of vocal presence with a stage-dive, though.) Dakota Johnson and Ruby Stewart (the daughters of actor Don Johnson and Rod Stewart, respectively) also didn't do "To Find a Friend" any favors.
The biggest surprise guest also turned out to be the biggest disappointment: Lucinda Williams, who sounded confused and hesitant during "Rebels." It seemed like some tech problem may have marred her performance, but then she didn't sound all that great singing with Boz Scaggs, either.
Many of the performers were excellent, though. One highlight of the early part of the show was "I Wont Back Down" as sung by Ewan Currie -- the frontman of the Sheepdogs, whom you probably know as that band that won the Rolling Stone cover contest. Aimee Mann put everyone to shame with her smoky take on "You Don't Know How It Feels." And maybe it was just 'cause he got two great songs -- "American Girl" and "Honey Bee" -- but Nick Valensi earned his place at the end of the show, with a rousing, lively take on both. The night concluded as any Petty tribute should, with all the performers onstage singing "Free Fallin'" as the crowd sang along. After three hours of watching Petty songs light up a sold-out crowd -- and watching many talented musicians try hard to do them justice -- we left with a new appreciation of one of America's quintessential classic rockers.
Free Boozin': The first S.F. edition of this NYC/LA event was sponsored by Jameson, allowing all proceeds from tickets to go to the Sweet Relief musicians fund, which helps career artists struggling with disability or illness. Jameson also put approximately half of the audience on a VIP list that granted access to an open bar stocked with (you guessed it!) Jameson. So by the time "American Girl" hit toward the end of the main set, much of crowd was very well-lubricated.
The real thing: Appropriately, Tom Petty himself announced tour dates for summer 2013 this morning. Unfortunately, there isn't a Bay Area show -- yet. Having seen him in person, though, we can testify that the intimate, casual vibe of Petty Fest is almost -- almost -- as good.