Pop: Travels in mythical America

WITH TOM Waits, Bruce Springsteen and now Tom Petty back in the spotlight, this spring has witnessed the return of a trio of great American singer/songwriters. Like Waits, like Springsteen, Petty is a pop-classicist who has no interest in chasing the musical Zeitgeist. His new album Echo - his 10th with the Heartbreakers - name-checks Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, and musically it's a comfortingly familiar melange of folk- and blues-inflected Americana. Hardly revolutionary, then, but Petty is a link to those halcyon days before Jeremy Clarkson and Michael Bolton gave AOR a bad name.

Tonight's gig was the first Petty and his band have played in the UK for seven years. With Mike Campbell (who wrote "The Boys of Summer" with Don Henley) and session legends Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein in the firing-line there was no doubting the line-up's credentials. Their heartbreaking days, however, are definitely behind them.

Petty, now 48, took the stage grinning. In his three-quarter length coat and pinstripe trousers, he still looked dapper, and throughout his performance he sought eye contact with the front row. During "Breakdown" he was relaxed enough to sing with one hand in his pocket, and he was clearly surprised at just how well the audience remembered his Seventies hits. When he placed a lit cigarette between the strings on the headstock of his Telecaster, everybody cheered. It was an anachronistic gesture that contexturised Petty as neatly as his Byrds harmonies, his vintage guitar collection and the economic melodies that he refined to virtually near perfection on his 1989 solo debut Full Moon Fever.

"I won't back down", a track from that album, provided the first sing- along of the evening. Petty led on acoustic guitar and Tench added a typically inventive organ figure. Elsewhere, much of the set - which included a number by John Mayall's Bluesbreakers - was heads-down, no-nonsense rock'n'roll. The Heartbreakers might best be described as a very good pub rock outfit, but if God had a local, they'd probably be the house band.

There's a neologism currently doing the rounds which describes the late Nineties, middle-aged male's fixation with more youthful pursuits: "adulescent". There's certainly an "adulescent" quality to Petty's boy-meets-girl, driving- around-with-the-roof-down snapshots. It's hard to absorb a gig such as this one without a nostalgic eye in the rear-view, but if you want a fast track to the days when you were born to run, Petty still fits the bill.

A version of this review appeared in some editions of yesterday's paper