British Summer Time at Hyde Park reached it crescendo with the ‘double header’ of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and special guest Steve Nicks on the final Sunday of the event. The Heartbreakers, once regular visitors in the 70s and 80s, appearing in the UK for only the third time in twenty years.
Starting the evening sets on the Great Oak Stage, at an ear bleeding volume, is LA guitar band The Shelters. A trio of classic rockabillies front the stage, taunting the crowd, “Are you ready to rock ‘n’ roll?” For such a rowdy offer they play surprisingly sophisticated but jangly rock ‘n’ pop. Twanging chords echo under the melody and are revealed in the bridge. The Shelters best represent the evolution of Americana music to the current time and indeed their debut album was co-produced by Tom Petty
On the secluded and leafy Summer Stage comes an international slice of Americana. Premiering her solo career is former Howling Bells front woman Juanita Stein. Only playing a short set for British Summer Time it is clear she will have no problem filling venues. Her confident and commanding stage presence is clear having concentrated her sound since stepping forward as a solo artist. Aspiring to classic US style Stein’s band hail not just from Nashville and Australia, but also the less romantic town of Eastbourne, and why not, the sea foam green Strat, the uniform of Wayfairer sunglasses and Stein’s slick of red lipstick are all just superficial anyway? With a haunting voice and lyrics that invoke long, empty, dusty roads, Stein transports the audience far from the overcast London skies.
As the crowds begin to stream in for the last evening of music from this year’s British Summer Time they gather at the Great Oak Stage for wedding song favourites The Lumineers. Opening track Submarines is underpinned by a swaying melody played on the cello, beautifully played by Neyla Pekarek, and punctuated with their trademark chanting shouts. Flowers in Your Hair is a nostalgic, Dylanesque tune. Early in the set is the charming and much covered, Hey Ho. Lead singer Wesley Schultz requests a sing-a-long from a strangely reluctant early evening crowd. Disappointed at the result, Schultz stops the song, completely restarting it with renewed gusto.
The title track from their current album, Cleopatra is a racing little rock song studded with jangly piano and a driving beat which seems to rouse the audience a little more. To start Gun Song Schultz prepares the crowd for participation, “I’m gonna teach you your part, it goes, la la la lahh-la la la.” Thankfully, this is not such a challenge for the crowd, this anthem writing by numbers. The rest of their set holds gems Charlie Boy and Ophelia, lovely songs whose sweet, not saccharine, lyrics warm the heart and tap the feet.
Far from the Great Oak Stage is the smaller but well curated Barclaycard Stage. Risking missing their place in the scrum for the headliners, are a crowd who have migrated to the top of the park to see The Head And The Heart. This Seattle band are a pleasing mixture of musicians and singers, lacking in pretension and full of the joys of playing together. They bash out songs All We Ever Knew and City of Angels in nice, tight harmonies of pop with folksy under currents. The Head and the Heart make smart use of having a range of instruments, synth, piano, electric violin, bass and drums pieced together in perfect musical tessellation. The crowd reluctantly withdraws when it’s time to re-position themselves for the Great Oak Stage and Stevie Nicks.
It becomes clear from the legions of women in flowing bohemian skirts, the slogan t-shirts emblazoned with, ‘Rock on gold dust woman!’ and ‘Stevie Nicks for President’ that Ms Nicks has some fans here. A crazed whoop of anticipation erupts when the roadie tests the central mic, with a monotone, “Stevie vocal. Stevie vocal.” What inspires such loyalty? Maybe it’s her undeniable talent, maybe it’s iconic style, or her history; once the innocent faced girl with near mythological powers of seduction and guile that yielded her stage personae of a witch-like enchantress?
Whatever it is this crowd cannot get enough. It is also worth a moment of consideration how many musicians might not have emerged without Nicks scouting ahead for the women of rock. She has secured her place as one of the originators of 20th Century American rock, not merely ‘the girl in the band’. Her song writing credits guarantee her the right to perform a significant portion of the Fleetwood Mac back catalogue and reinforces her status as a commanding draw.
Striding onto the stage in layers of black pulled in at the waist long blonde hair flowing an immaculate face of make-up and gold tipped cat’s claw finger nails peaking from velvet fingerless gloves, clutching a ribbon strewn tambourine, she looks every inch the ‘Queen of Rock’. Her opening numbers are a trip back to the 80s with Gold and Braid and If Anyone Falls, middle of road, soft rock which pleases without challenging. On the first Fleetwood Mac song in the set, Gypsy, it possible to hear how well her voice is holding up. Pleased with the result she spins on stage and gives a theatrical bow to finish.
On Outside the Rain which transitions smoothly into Fleetwood Mac classic Dreams she pushes her voice and is surprisingly on note. At the age of 69 Nicks, just like her contemporaries, must contend with a natural deepening of the voice. She has made minor adjustments to the phrasing for some of her songs to avoid long, high notes. The sound coming from the stage has also been finessed, with the drummer penned in perspex to allow for great sound control with the rest of the music.
A pianist is left on stage to create a long passage to allow for a bizarre costume change. Nicks reappears from the side of stage in a flamboyant white fur coat. A fur coat, in 29° summer heat. The costume is entirely to illustrate songs Enchanted and Moonlight. The later Nicks explains, was inspired by characters Bella and Edward (from novel to film adaptation) Twilight, the audience seems non-plussed, that might be a slightly youthful reference for baby boomers, or too out of date a reference for the hip young things. To avoid waving the heat away from her face, she makes another clothing change, to a gold embellished kimono. Her superb band keep the audience entertained on Stand Back, seasoned guitarist and songwriter Robert ‘Waddy’ Watchel plays an engaging slide and the phenomenal ‘lefty’ guitarist Carlos Rios holds the band together. Nicks jokes that she’s being hurried by an order on the teleprompter as she waxes on, telling stories about the history of song Crying in the Night.
Whilst her legendary relationship with writing partner and Fleetwood Mac bandmate Lindsey Buckingham will forever be of fascination, the anecdotes may be better suited to another time and place. Nicks returns to a poignant thought after the song, confessing, “That song is proof that dreams do come true, forty-four years later you can sing a song that you thought no one would ever hear, on a stage, in London.” After a much quicker costume change into sheer golden shall, that shimmers with beading, an electric violin leads into glorious slow burning Gold Dust Woman. A pocket in the crowd is made up entirely of ‘Stevies’ doing the famous ‘skirt dance’ in time to the music. Nicks gives an impressive vocal performance pushing her long notes past the echo effect, almost giving the impression of a layered harmony. She ends the song with a Janis Joplin levels of freak out dancing which makes the crowd go crazy as she covers her eyes with her hands at the end of the song to compose herself.
The intro to Edge of Seventeen is ominously extended to accommodate another costume change, giving a restless crowd a chance to make fun, singing lyrics from Black Betty and Eye of the Tiger over the top and asking if various members of Destiny’s Child can ‘handle it’ (the intro having been famously sampled for 2001’s Bootylicious). Hurry back Stevie. The crowd are rewarded with an elongated version including a delirious Hammond organ solo that keeps Nicks dancing and the audience enthralled. A surprisingly quick turnaround for the encore treats the gushing crowd to some of the best of Fleetwood Mac and a song that Nicks confesses has, “never not been done”, with Rhiannon. Her set closes with an emotional performance of Landslide serenaded by a devoted audience.
Celebrating 40 years as a band, nicest man in rock, Tom Petty and his troupe The Heartbreakers have chosen BST as their only European date. An energetic crowd roar as Petty greets them, “I can feel some mojo working – Do you have your mojo working out there?” Making a safe start with the first song on their first album, 1976’s Rockin’ Around With You, it gives them a chance to settle onto the stage. Much loved Mary Jane’s Last Dance is next as the stage is lit in psychedelic swirl of bright colours and an arrangement of glowing orbs, suspended from the stage arch, begin to undulate in waves. This dazzling production cuts out to blackness between songs leaving everyone outside of the elite, designated ‘diamond circle’ unable to see anything whatsoever.
Forced to entertain themselves in darkness the audience begin a to chant the refrain from Mary Jane, “Whoah-oh-oh-oh-ohhh!” When the lights come back up and Petty reappears on the giant screens flanking the stage he is visibly moved, “Thank you very much for that!” as he touches his hand to his heart. During You Don’t Know How it Feels some of the Heartbreakers get a chance to shine, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston switches between keyboards, harmonica and backing vocals. Interjecting new song Forgotten Man into the set is not too disruptive and gives the crowd a break from singing along whilst Petty, clearly enjoying himself, pumps out some hard rocking guitar fills.
Re-engaging the mob choir, Petty asks, “Feel like singing one together?” before serving up super hits I Won’t Back Down and Freefalling. The screens are bathed in red as the mandala design from bandanna whirls like a giant hypnotic pin wheel, superimposed over the top Petty holds his hands over his hand, victorious. “This is a request,” he explains, “it’s actually me that requested it, but that counts, right?” His choice, Walls, followed by the steady Don’t Come Around Here No More performed with a clap along call and return with the crowd, accelerating into rock ‘n’ roll finish with Petty strumming open strings and racing towards the lip of the stage, whilst guitarist Mike Campbell shows off one of his many riffs and lead breaks.
After introducing excellent backing vocalists, sisters Charley and Hattie Webb, he begins a long ambling story of the history of the band calling out each member by name in appreciation, building up to the return of Stevie Nicks for a somewhat disjointed but delightful version of Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. Nick’s momentarily fluffs the lyrics causing a little teasing and gentle mocking interplay with Petty that has the audience wrapped. What follows is Learning to Fly with a softened chanting chorus and yelping guitar solo before Petty announces, “We’re gonna turn the amplifiers up really loud.”
He disposes of his guitar altogether to grab the mic stand with both hands or shake maracas and dance with the Webb sisters for Yer So Bad and I Should Have Known It, a pacey version of Refugee and finishing with Running Down A Dream. The encore features a perfectly, if predictably withheld but jazzed up, You Wreck Me and a grand finale of American Girl. A trembling and spent Petty and his band bow deeply safe in knowledge they have closed a world class summer of music.
Photography by Imelda Michalczyk Live Review by Sarah Sievers at Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, British Summer Time in London, UK, on 9 July 2017.