Tom Petty lets The Heartbreakers take center stage to repay their years of decorated service to songcraft 

Full Mojo Fever

Full Mojo Fever

Tom Petty's gift for marrying a plainspoken poetic lyric to an unshakable melody, then delivering it with an unmistakable twang and sly wink, made him a rock legend of the highest order. But it's the lightning-in-bottle chemistry between Petty and his band, The Heartbreakers — featuring the talents of guitarist and co-pilot Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone (who replaced Stan Lynch in 1994) and longstanding journeyman jack-of-all-trades Scott Thurston — that has sustained the Petty brand as one of America's great rock 'n' roll dynasties for the better part of three-and-a-half decades. And Tom Petty knows it.

Mojo, Tom Petty's first studio album in eight years to feature his near career-long confederates The Heartbreakers, is almost the antithesis of his 1989 solo masterpiece Full Moon Fever, the first of an intermittent series of records on which Petty would mostly eschew the services of his good soldiers in favor of more creative autonomy. Under the surgical studio precision of pop-mechanic and producer Jeff Lynne, Full Moon Fever yielded catalogue staples like "Free Fallin'," "Yer So Bad," "I Won't Back Down" and "Runnin' Down a Dream." It was a veritable singles collection on arrival, and Petty's most accomplished artistic statement since his breakthrough Damn the Torpedos a decade earlier. But classic as the album may be, Heartbreakers fans will always mark it with an asterisk, because, for all its pop perfection, it heartbreakingly lacks — even though Campbell and Tench both appear on it — the esprit de corps of the legendary backing band that best understands its auteur.

Just as Full Moon Fever was a Tom Petty album with contributions from The Heartbreakers, Mojo is a Heartbreakers album with contributions from Tom Petty, as the iron-handed bandleader takes a backseat role to atmosphere, holding back the hooks in favor of letting the band stretch out and display their penchant for groovin' on some Chicago-style blues.

While they may not exactly have made the album casual fans are looking for, after years of faithfully serving the songs that have made Petty's music fundamental to the rock-radio format, The Heartbreakers have earned the space to indulge themselves a little. Unchecked by Petty's pen, the band unfurls a meandering mesh of mid-tempo shuffles, moody vamps and pentatonic noodling. If that's a ride you're willing and wanting to embark on, then there is simply no better confederacy of musicians to take you there. The Heartbreakers' reputation as one of rock's greatest backing bands was not earned by dazzling audiences with monstrous chops, but by displaying an innate ability to cradle the material in their care with a taste and class that's unmatched, even among most of their contemporaries — by knowing the right notes to play, as opposed to all the notes to play.

Over the course of his career, Mike Campbell — whose own songwriting credits include Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" — has patented a guitar style all his own, an amalgamation of immediately identifiable influences including Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore, George Harrison, Neil Young and Roger McGuinn. Longstanding keyboardist/pianist Benmont Tench is equally adept at finding the perfect pitch to help Petty channel Dylan when he needs to channel Dylan, Orbison when he needs to channel Orbison, all the while making the audience hear Petty being Petty. It is in the keen command of these chops, and how they sit together — in addition to Steve Ferrone's knowing when to throw a snare flam on the one — that The Heartbreakers are able to combine background harmonies, lead lines, backbeats and organ flourishes in a way that makes a plain and perfect vocal melody even stronger.

While Petty has spent the last third of his recording career using The Heartbreakers more as friends with benefits than as partners in an exclusive relationship, he has never toured without them in the engine room — even on the jaunts supporting his solo albums. That is because their roots-y sonic prowess is every bit as much a factor in determining Petty's $60-$150 per-ticket market value as the chestnuts he can cherry-pick from a cache of chart-topping singles spanning three generations when composing a setlist.

While recent tours have been first-string greatest hits revues, focusing more on the familiar than on deep cuts and elongated jams, the Mojo Tour — like the album — sees the band break, if only ever so slightly, from the confines of the predictable hit-parade to include more challenging material, both new and old.

For the audiences who've packed amphitheater after amphitheater for decades, the looser approach will likely come as a breath of fresh air. And casual fans can rest easy, as Petty is never one to lose sight of the importance of satisfying the masses who've kept him in regular rotation for more than a quarter-century.

The band's dedication to rock 'n' roll was proved again last month when, after collapsing onstage in St. Louis due to reported heat exhaustion, Campbell took a 10-minute break to collect himself, then soldiered on and finished the show. So even if the arena floods again, rest assured the show will go on.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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