Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have 40 years on the books now — that’s the point of the band’s current tour — so it almost seemed unfair Saturday to get only 19 songs in a headlining set on the first day of the inaugural Arroyo Seco Weekend in Pasadena.
But that ended up making for two hours of music, and in the end, the fans who packed — and we mean packed — the festival grounds in front of the Oaks Stage (more on that in a bit) probably heard most of the hits they came for.
It was a strong finish to a solid opening day that featured classic soul from the likes of Alabama Shakes and Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires, fine indie rock from Broken Social Scene, and a handful of jazz acts like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and actor Jeff Goldblum and his band the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra.
Petty opened the night with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” a nod to the band’s history, with Petty noting that it was “the first song on the first album we ever did.” Up next, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” an outtake from a Petty solo album that came out on a Heartbreakers greatest-hits collection. Confusing? Not really. The Petty solo records were always practically Heartbreakers albums in all but name.
And that’s how they were treated Saturday, with solo hits such as “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “I Won’t Back Down” fitting neatly around a Heartbreakers classic like “You Got Lucky.”
“We’re going to try one here that we haven’t played in about 30 years,” Petty said by way of introducing “Into the Great Wide Open,” from the 1991 album of the same name. “By that I mean we haven’t rehearsed it, either.”
No worries, it sounded great, and the crowd sang along loudly on the choruses, as it did on many songs in the set. By my reckoning “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’” had the biggest crowd choral accompaniment early in the set, with maybe “Yer So Bad” and “Refugee” the biggest in the back half.
“Yer So Bad,” when it arrived, provided a welcome boost of energy. It followed three from the “Wildflowers” album — “It’s Good to Be King” in a version that might have gone on a bit longer than it needed to, “Crawling Back to You” and the title track. They’re good songs, a bit more folk than the earlier stuff, but they slowed the pace a bit, which at the end of a long, hot day was dangerous.
Also threatening the good vibes of Petty’s set was the gridlock of the crowd. Festival organizers didn’t book any acts opposite Petty, choosing to close down the two other stages, which is fine, but that also meant everyone on the festival grounds tried to squeeze into a space that was too narrow to accommodate them — especially given that many, many people came with blankets and lawn chairs and staked out spots — large spots — on the lawn in front of the Oaks stage.
It was my one main gripe on a day that overall flowed smoothly, and Petty’s set closed on a strong run of songs that made me forgive those problems: “Refugee,” one of the early classics by the band, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” wrapped up the main set, before an encore of “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl.”
Sunset was for soul at Arroyo Seco Weekend as a handful of artists, mostly older, took to the three different stages to sing their hearts and heartaches out.
Alabama Shakes was the younger, newer band in the genre on the bill, but we’ll come back to them in a bit. Instead, let’s give the older guys their due first.
Roy Ayers is the 76-year-old vibraphonist who more or less turned jazz fusion in a new direction in the ‘70s and created what came to be known as neo-soul, a blend of the classic sound mixed with jazz and funk and whatever else a musician wanted to add. In the Willows tent, he and his current band played hits such as “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and “Running Away.”
Over on the Sycamore stage, after a strong set by the Canadian collective Broken Social Scene — which previewed songs from its upcoming “Hug of Thunder” album, assisted by guests including Emily Haines of Metric — Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires arrived to deliver the rawest, most emotional set of old-school soul you could hope to hear.
Back in the Willows tent, longtime Stax Records soul man William Bell and his 11-piece band were tearing it up in front of a criminally small crowd, many of them already headed to the Oaks stage for Alabama Shakes. Bell gave it his all, and at 77, his voice is as terrific as ever. He sang hits from his catalog such as “Private Number” and “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” a song Bell wrote and recorded that has been covered often by everyone from Otis Redding and the Byrds to Peter Tosh and the Wailers
You should have been there for Bell (catch him elsewhere if you can), but the modern soul of 28-year-old Brittany Howard, the singer-guitarist for Alabama Shakes, and her band mates, made that a truly hard choice.
Howard sounded fantastic and the band was sharp, as always, on songs such as “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Sound & Color,” and you just know she and the other Shakes would have loved to have caught Ayers, Bradley and Bell if they could have.
Closing out the sunset run were the Meters, New Orleans-bred pioneers of funk with roots back to the ’60s, but there’s certainly soul in that gumbo, too.
It’s surely a different kind of music festival when actor Jeff Goldblum and his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, draw a sitting-room-only crowd to the tent where they’re playing Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk straight-ahead jazz on a hot and humid afternoon in Pasadena.
But that’s the point of the Arroyo Seco Weekend.
Goldblum came out alone and told the crowd, which now was standing, “After we’re done I’m going to come out and take pictures with every one of you. I’m like Vito Corleone on his daughter’s wedding day. There’s no request I can refuse.”
He also did a bit of Jeff Goldblum movie trivia and a round of Who’d You Rather (Christopher Walken or Viggo Mortensen), and then it was time “for that hot jazz that all the kids are crazy for.”
Absolutely wonderful: great music, silly fun, sometimes both — a bossa nova version of Petty’s “American Girl” anyone? — and the highlight of the first half of the day.
Arroyo Seco Weekend
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena
When: June 24-25
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