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Music To My Ears

Tom Petty and John Waite

Tom Petty: Highway Companion (click for larger version)
02/01/2007 - You know you're getting old when the music you grew up with is called "classic rock." Oh, well. At least that's better than what they call the music of my folks. "Oldies." Ouch.

Anyway, the music of my generation is now called classic. And as much as I hate to admit it, it is. Or was. There is a story about how the guys in Led Zeppilen listened back to "Stairway To Heaven" in the studio when the final mix down was completed. After the song played through, they looked at one another in awed silence, knowing that what they had created was an instant "classic." Same thing happened with Skynyrd's "Free Bird," and Derek and the Dominoes' "Layla."

When I say that the rock music of the sixties, seventies, and eighties sounded better, I'm not simply some old, bitter curmudgeon bragging about the way things used to be. Ask high school kids. Find out what they're listening to. You'll find that they are hooked on the classics – Led, Queen, Bad Company, Heart, Rush, AC/DC...and the list goes on.

Maybe that's why guys like Tom Petty and John Waite can still pull it off. They continue to sell out concerts, sell tons of records, and rate high on the cool-O-meter. This in spite of the fact that they are both AARP eligible.

Both Tom Petty and John Waite have been successful rockers for well over thirty years. Both achieved broad success somewhere around 1976, after a few false starts. Tom did it with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and John did it with The Babys. Neither has elected to slow down, and both have recently released something new. Let's start with Tom, since alphabetically speaking, he's first.

John Waite: Downtown-Journey of a Heart (click for larger version)
Highway Companion is quite simply, a signature Tom Petty album. He is not trying to reinvent the wheel here. He has wisely decided to dance with the one who got him here. Actually, the ones. The album was produced with the help of Jeff Lynne of ELO fame, and Heartbreaker guitarist, Mike Campbell. Both have had a hand in shaping the Tom Petty sound over the past twenty five years. Especially Lynne, who was a driving force behind the hugely successful "Full Moon Fever" back in 1989. He also produced the phenomenal Traveling Wilburys albums, of which Tom was a part.

What you get here are twelve strong songs, each featuring the unmistakeable voice of Tom Petty. I can't say the wonderful voice. Or that the vocals are beautiful, or finely crafted. I can say that his voice is evocative, and that it effectively carries the songs and makes them uniquely his. Having said that, I'm not sure what to think of this album.

In fact, it's a very fine line between the universally rocking response elicited by a song like "Refugee," or "Breakdown," and the introspective mumblings of a tired old rocker that can be found here. In terms of instrumentation, this album lacks fire. It does not rock. It is very unlike, say, "Damn the Torpedos" in this respect. This is too bad. Don't get me wrong, though. The album is okay, and if you're a huge TP fan, it's probably better than that. Oh, and if you listen to this with your eyes closed, it's not hard to imagine that it's 1989 again.

That brings us to John Waite. 1989 was big for him, too. That was the year he hit paydirt with his supergroup, Bad English. They had a HUGE hit with "When I See You Smile." Prior to this, a couple of biggies for John were "Missing You," and "Isn't It Time." "Missing You" was a solo hit, and "Isn't It Time" came during his stint with The Babys.

The thing about John, as with Tom, was and is his voice. Unlike Tom, though, John's voice is absolutely incredible. He still sounds amazing after all these years. That, to me, makes this album a lot more listenable than the Tom Petty release. Well, that, and the songs. You see, John's "new" album is basically a re-recording of a bunch of songs he's already done, including the ones I've already mentioned. That's perfectly fine with me, though, because they are fantastic. Especially his duet with Alison Krauss (!) on "Missing You." Trust me, this song is going to be a hit all over again. It's recently gone into rotation on country (?) radio, and I think it's gonna blow up. We'll see...

The songs John has chosen to cover are strong, and made even stronger by his amazing voice. This disc is a good one to put on and kick back to, or to drive to, or whatever. I'd even go so far as to call it...classic. Same goes for Tom Petty's "Highway Companion," and that's simply because it's by Tom Petty. If you only have money for one, the choice is easy. John Waite gets the nod.

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