They could call Eddie Vedder.
The major highlights of Petty's set Thursday night at the Marcus Amphitheater came when Pearl Jam's front man joined the Heartbreakers for a mid-set rendition of "The Waiting," and an encore version of "American Girl." Not only did Vedder expose Petty's limitations as a vocalist, he injected excitement into a concert that had a bit of a "punch the clock" feel.
Petty, who is celebrating his 30th year with the Heartbreakers, certainly has earned a victory lap. He's a Hall of Fame talent who brings generations of fans together with his radio-friendly tunes in an era when radio's impact on popular music seems to diminish by the day. As always, his recitation of his impressive catalog of hits was laser pure Thursday.
The band was tight. There were no missed notes. Top-notch covers of the Yardbirds "I'm a Man," Fleetwood Mac's "Oh, Well" and the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care" all were received warmly. The video screens, which spotlighted the band members individually for much of the night, were a terrific addition.
For much of the night, there seemed to be something missing; the intangible element that transforms a show from solid to transcendent.
In previous stints at the Marcus, where they are serving as headlienrs for the fifth time in six years, the Heartbreakers packed the power of a locomotive as they blitzed through their hits. This time, they seemed more like an airplane on its final approach. Straighten the seatbacks and put the table trays in the upright and locked position.
Though he was never a Springsteen-style storyteller, Petty kept the banter to a minimum on Thursday and even the on-stage interplay between the musicians was muted. Dreadlocked Mike Campbell, one of the greatest guitar players rock has seen, turned in some exquisite solos but seemed bored at times and so did his bandmates Benmont Tench, Ron Blair and Steve Ferrone. (Scott Thurston, a steady sideman known as an unofficial Heartbreaker, seemed to be enjoying himself more than anyone on stage).
Petty, whose set was marked by plumes of pot smoke in the crowd and flashes from fireworks beyond the back wall, had the crowd standing and singing from the opening notes of "Listen to Her Heart" and threw in a few rarities like "Here Comes My Girl" and "Cabin Down Below." Many first-timers will undoubtedly mark the show as one of their all-time favorites.
As good as he was Thursday, Petty has had better nights. Perhaps that's a byproduct of establishing such a standard of excellence over three decades. Maybe it's one of the reasons Petty lost his taste for touring in the first place.
Pearl Jam's set, hampered by a somewhat muddy sound mix, was greeted enthusiastically by the capacity crowd. Although many of the songs were neither as memorable nor well-crafted as Petty's, the band attacked them with gusto usually displayed by teenagers on the Vans Warped Tour. Near the end of the set, Vedder paid homage to the Heartbreakers' 30th anniversary and remarked "We're halfway there."
Pearl Jam may never reach the historic heights scaled by the Heartbreakers, but their presence on this bill served notice that they're willing to give it a try.
The bands will perform again tonight at the Marcus Amphitheater.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.