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Livewire

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Lucinda Williams
Gund Arena
June 16

By the time Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers finished their first song ("Jammin' Me") of what would be a two-and-a-half-hour Gund Arena show and their second gig of the Echo tour, the areas that needed WD-40 were evident: uncertain Petty vocals, sloppy delivery, and soundboard problems. Amazingly, it took only one song for the rust to dissipate and for Petty to get in gear, the band to tighten up, and the optimum volume level to be found.

Early on, the classic "Breakdown" slithered its way around the arena, with guitarist Mike Campbell adding the ambiance. Distorted, eerie chords redefined the song, as Petty and the band stretched out. Never breaking a sweat, Petty mumbled his way through with extra lyrics. A simple, indifferent fadeout ended the stunning song and raised the bar for the rest of the evening.

Any reproach for the set borders on anal, as it wasn't necessarily the songs that were the problem but their placement. The unplugged, reworked "I Won't Back Down" found Petty's quiet voice pure and honest, but wedged between the thick guitar riffs of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and three-minute rocker "Listen to Her Heart," its intimacy was lost. Another slow moment was new track "Room at the Top." Well into the 23-song set list, the obscure number—while impressive for its introspective, mellow nature—easily could have been left out.

Even though Petty's name is on the product, Campbell is just as important to the experience. Unleashed throughout the evening, Campbell blossomed on "It's Good to Be King," which burned with fury. Utilizing a Jimmy Page arsenal of guitar effects and ghostly sounds, Campbell added color to this picturesque tune while the bandleader's playing grew to a fever pitch.

"You Got Lucky," "Refugee," "American Girl," "You Wreck Me," and "Free Girl Now" came in quick succession, much to the delight of the sing-along crowd. "Free Fallin'" and acoustic "Learning to Fly" ended the evening and metaphorically summed up Petty's career. Whether on the up or the down swing, this Florida native shows up and plays.

While Lucinda Williams may be labeled as alternative country, her opening set was a rocking display. Backed by a potent five-piece, Williams—whose voice reflects a somewhat less husky Stevie Nicks with a Chrissie Hynde attitude—told her stories ("Drunken Angel," "Changed the Locks," and "Joy") with an earnest country drawl. Even though "Thanks a lot, ya'll" accompanied the end of every song, Williams and company showed they have plenty to offer the rock world.—John Benson

Foxtrot Zulu
Third Wish
Agora
June 17

An eager Foxtrot Zulu tried desperately to win over the diminutive crowd—admirable, considering how small the crowd actually was. The band repeatedly thanked people for coming, they repeatedly invited people onstage to dance, and they repeatedly offered drinks to the dancing minors at the front of the stage.

When it came to the music, however, this alacrity morphed into ambition, which got the better of them a lot of the time. Ingesting genres like a little kid does free samples at the grocery store, the band could be heard at any time during its set dabbling in Crosby, Stills & Nash-style vocal country rock, Grateful Dead electro-bluegrass swagger, disco funk-out, smelly ska off-beats, and three-chord rock. Just to name a few.

Nevertheless, between the broader, coarser gestures, the band provided more then its fair share of felicitous moments. Though related, in a distant way, to the vast and growing field of jam bands, Foxtrot proved that it could sidestep some of the typical pitfalls. They maintained a full, bright sound throughout, using their augmented instrumentation—replete with saxophone, trumpet, and bongos—for full effect. Never did their sound shrivel into a dull support/solo section; nor did they succumb to the wildly overindulgent, meandering soloing so often associated with the jam element. They kept things tight, and with the choice addition of unified horn lines, surprisingly soulful. Keep the horns, guys.

Openers Third Wish had focus problems of their own. Favoring long strum-and-solo sections, they could sound like the Allman Brothers one moment, only to switch to airy contemporary folk rock another, and still find room enough for a rougher bar band sound. The two-part vocals were good. The backup singer was better. On the few songs Tara Marie O'Malley took herself, her rich voice gave the band the center of attention it lacked most of the time, and the band fell in line behind her nicely, becoming a (sort of) 10,000 Maniacs to her (sort of) Natalie Merchant. More O'Malley. More, more, more.—Aaron Steinberg

The Red Elvises
Wilbert's Bar & Grille
June 17

The Russian comedian Yakov Smirnov once said that every country had a city that it made fun of. He said that, in the United States, it's Cleveland. And back in the Soviet Union . . . it's Cleveland. That kind of crack begs for payback, and Friday looked like an easy target, as the Red Elvises—an improbable collection of post-communist pelvis shakers playing Eastern Bloc gypsy rock—rolled into town.

Spurred by a big weekend crowd, the Elvises went the distance with an entertaining show and a sound that had plenty of punch. Just when you thought the whole "Hello, Cleveland!" mock yell had been done to death, bassist Oleg Bernov fired up the crowd with his thick Siberian interpretation. As can be imagined, most of the night's laughs were of the you-had-to-be-there variety, such as when the neon-red-coiffed Bernov offered in broken English, "Okay, now we play and we'll be your favorite band, thank you," or the band singing the "dees-go" in "Closet Disco Dancer." Bernov's enormous bass balalaika and lead singer Igor Yuzov's (rhymes with Brendan Fraser) campy Elvis mannerisms were memorable.

Fixing the Mir space station is easier than describing the sound: jump blues for "Red Lips, Red Eyes, Red Stockings," ska for "Love Pipe," honky-lounge for the humorous "Harriet." Throw in island, swing, surf, and Istanbul snake-charmer folk—and that covers about half of it. Guitarist Zhenya Kolykhanov's great licks and the band's seamless blending of influences were what kept the crowd. For the record, there was only one Elvis medley, but after watching the band swagger through an unlikely Tom Waits tribute (which flew well over the crowd's cocked heads), you knew nothing was guaranteed.

Not a night for groundbreaking music. Just a fun night of beers with the Bolsheviks—now just a charismatic bunch of capitalists selling discs off the side of the stage.—Tim Piai

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