Yes, you read that title right: Tom Petty’s Wildflowers is the best album of the ‘90s.
Taste and subjectivity might be a factor, but as far as pure songwriting goes, nothing comes close to Petty’s late-era masterpiece.
Too often, Petty is lumped in with other classic rock songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. There’s nothing wrong with them necessarily, but Petty is in a completely different stratosphere. His work never dipped in quality. Nearly 20 years after his first album he released his masterpiece, Wildflowers.
What sets it apart from his other work – and the other music that was coming out at the time – is that it combines pop/rock sensibility with impressive songwriting depth. It touches on a variety of moods and feelings, from the beautiful folk of the title track to the pure rock n’ roll of “You Wreck Me” and everything in-between.
Iowa-via-Chicago songwriter Dan Tedesco paid tribute to Wildflowers by playing it in its entirety at the Turf Club on Friday night. Incredibly, that wasn’t the only full-length release that was celebrated: Tedesco marked the 10th anniversary of his debut album Starin’ at a Green Light by also playing it front-to-back, and local songwriter Chris Davies performed both songs from his new 7-inch Hollywood.
Good Music for a Good Cause
Davies didn’t begin playing guitar until he was 33, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by how natural his playing is. His combination of Americana and pop/rock is the real deal, his band featuring tasteful banjo and fiddle in addition to a straightforward rock rhythm section.
Highlights included both sides from his new 7-inch, meaningful story-song “Hollywood” and jaunty, positive “Good Life.” Proceeds from the release go to The Family Partnership, which fights sex trafficking, so be sure to buy one and support a good cause.
The rest of the set featured a lot of well-written material, but the final song, “People are People,” was especially meaningful. Davies explained that the song of inclusion was inspired by his father, who refused to follow the rules at a racially segregated club in Texas in the late ‘60s, ultimately forcing them to desegregate. His Dad was at the show, and many people went up to him to thank him for his courage. Truly inspiring.
Let’s Get to the Point
I was initially disappointed when I saw that Dan Tedesco’s Wildflowers tribute was a solo show, but that ended up being a blessing. The solo arrangements put the focus on the power of the songs. In a way, a full band would have taken away from that. Tedesco also kept things interesting by playing a variety of instruments in a variety of styles.
At this point, the title track from Wildflowers is iconic. Everyone from Trampled by Turtles to Miley Cyrus have covered it. Tedesco’s version, featuring a well-thought-out piano arrangement, was beautiful and simple, capturing the essence of the song. A straightforward, acoustic and harmonica take on classic “You Don’t Know How it Feels” followed.
The variety of sounds and approaches used throughout the show kept things fresh. The big rock of “You Wreck Me” was turned into a piano ballad; the folk blues of “Don’t Fade on Me,” simple folk of “Time to Move On,” and laid-back-but-intense “A Higher Place” featured well-executed fingerpicking; moving “It’s Good to Be King” was led by electric piano; and subtle vibes created the perfect atmosphere for the effortless beauty of “Hard on Me.”
The Depth of Wildflowers
The highlights of the set were on opposite ends of the spectrum, covering five of Wildflowers best songs. A small, dedicated group in front of the stage sang along with every word of a ukulele take on gorgeous “It’s Only a Broken Heart.” They practically created a chorus on what might be Petty’s best song, stunning ballad “Crawling Back to You” (hearing Petty play this on his last tour is one of my favorite live music experiences). Loving this album never felt more like being part of a cool, exclusive club.
The genius of Wildflowers is its depth and variety of songwriting. Its heavier songs, which Tedesco radically transformed, show both a different side of the album and of Petty. “Now we’re going to get into some shit” Tedesco warned before a ferocious, foot-stomping take on riff rocker “Honey Bee.” He had the same approach, and raunchy electric guitar tone on his acoustic, for “House in the Woods” (another of Petty’s best songs) and a creative, slide guitar-led arrangement of “Cabin Down Below.”
Starin’ at a Green Light
After a perfectly tender reading of piano ballad “Wake Up Time,” the final track on Wildflowers, Tedesco took a 10-minute break before launching into a complete performance of his first album, 2009’s Starin’ at a Green Light. It takes a lot of guts to play one album front-to-back at a show, but to do two – and have one of them be all originals – is even more impressive.
He pulled it off well, giving the same variety of instrumentation that made his trek through Wildflowers consistently interesting. Even early on, as his first album shows, his songwriting was a mature update of Dylan, Springsteen, and of course Petty.
Americana and Rock n’ Roll
Tedesco finished with energetic “Rock On.” A tribute to music legends, it name-drops everyone from Johnny Cash to Warren Zevon to John Lennon. It was a fitting close a show that celebrated the music of the past while also keeping it fresh, alive, and new.