In the four years since Nipplegate, the infamous wardrobe malfunction that guaranteed that MTV will never produce another Super Bowl halftime show, the NFL has played it safe with a procession of classic-rock heroes: Paul McCartney (2005), the Rolling Stones (2006) and Prince (2007).
To this list we can now add Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who outshined them all with a simple but stellar turn at Super Bowl XLII in Arizona Sunday night.
Thanks to their leaders charmingly low-key and laconic persona and the seemingly effortless anthem nature of many of their songs, it has long been entirely too easy to take the Heartbreakers for granted. Some good radio hits and solid performers onstage, some rock fans might say. But no way are they in the same league as McCartney or the Stones.
Here I have to disagree: An argument can be made that if we set aside flash and pedigree and strictly judge the musical merits, no other American or British rock band has been as worthy of stadium status for the last 32 years as the Heartbreakers.
The group illustrated the full measure of its unassuming powers Sunday by eschewing the medleys that have become standard at these shows in favor of an unadulterated four-song mini-set that showed its considerable range, opening with the driving American Girl, striking a mid-tempo but defiant tone with I Wont Back Down, veering off into the psychedelic ether with the lilting Free Fallin and then going out with a bang again on Runnin Down a Dream.
There was no high-tech tomfoolery, just a cooled lighted stage that looked like a Flying V guitar piercing a big red heart. There were no lasers or major explosions, just handheld flashlights given to the crowd. And there were no eye-candy dancers, just some very road-worn musicians in matching black suit coats backed a singer who looked every bit of his 57 years, all playing precisely but passionately.
The group bow that ended the performance was evidence of a band thrilled to be at its peak even as it takes stock of its storied history. This is a process that started with the release last year of the Peter Bogdanovich-directed documentary Runnin Down A Dream. It continued at the Super Bowl, and it builds to a summer tour that brings Petty and the Heartbreakers to the United Center on July 2nd.
In a move well-timed to take advantage of performing for 140 million viewers Sunday night, tickets for that show go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday for $55 to $99 plus service fees via www.ticketmaster.com or by phone at (312) 559-1212.