After 40 years, no excuses and no shortcuts for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as this tour’s billing tells us, have been a band for more than 40 years. There aren’t a lot of bands still standing after 20 years, and though we still have bands like the Rolling Stones working on more than 50 years together, it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to get to this point.
It’s even harder to step up and deliver a set and a show worthy of all those years. With any kind of commemoration, there’s the danger of dipping into pure nostalgia — that “here’s a song you might remember from 1979” stuff that goes over well on package tours and cruise ships, but doesn’t make for vital music.
Happily, this was not the case here. Not just resting on reputation, Petty and the Heartbreakers brought out those hits, mixed in gems new and old, and played with the authority of a seasoned, fearless band. And that’s how they honored 40 years of shared history.
There was obviously a willingness to stretch out the set and bring back some songs that haven’t gotten much time on stage on past tours. “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first song from the Heartbreaker’s debut record circa ’76, opened the show as it has most nights on this tour, and within the first four tunes, he was already up to “Forgotten Man” from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye.
And they didn’t just quickly scan through the catalog before settling into a greatest hits set, though he has so many hits at this point that he’ll inevitably leave out a dozen radio-tested songs on any night no matter what he does. But they opened up the catalog, breaking out the epic “Into the Great Wide Open” and giving “Swingin’” some time — a rarity for any song from the Echo album.
Beyond the hits, the highlight of the night came mid-set during the Wildflowers section. Petty has reportedly been working on a deluxe version of the album for a few years, so that record and all it’s varied textures has clearly been on his mind. And though it’s technically a solo album, it serves as one of the Heartbreakers’ greatest triumphs. Playing it live just reinforces that, through the languid instrumental passages within “It’s Good to Be King” or the melancholy determination of “Crawling Back to You.” All told, five songs from that album were played on a night dedicated to celebrating four decades of history, which should signal the esteem Petty holds for it.
Through all this, Petty remains the consummate host, a grateful yet confident front man who can signal his Heartbreakers to stop or start with just a quick wave of his hand. On one motion they’ll bring the volume right down, on another they’re blaring out of their amps. A quick wave here, and drummer Steve Ferrone brings the tempo to a quick stop, and on another, he’s adding a flair on his ride cymbal. When the songs get going, as on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Petty will start a guitar solo and his co-captain Mike Campbell will pick it up mid-measure, and on the next solo later in the song, they’ll trade off again, this time with Campbell passing the baton to Petty. It’s seamless and it’s what happens with the newest guy in the band has 24 years of tenure.
The Heartbreakers are, more than ever, the lived-in, road-tested band they profess to be. And they look the part, too. Guitarist Mike Campbell has traded in his curly mop for dreads and a beard and Ferrone doesn’t seem to age. But pianist Benmont Tench, bassist Ron Blair and jack-of-all-trades Scott Thurston are all grey haired and two-thirds bearded. Together, they play as tight and loud and fluidly as any band on the road today. They’re practically the model for what the American band should be.
And has become their custom, they got their opportunity to flex their collective muscles on “I Should Have Known It,” the heaviest of the blues numbers the band recorded for Mojo in 2010. With Petty sans guitar, the band turned up and pummeled the song, with Campbell’s bottleneck solo taking center stage.
The Heartbreakers as the greatest blues band in the world stepped back for the rock and roll version following, with a four-song run through hits to bring the night to a close — “Refugee” and a stretched-out “Runnin’ Down a Dream” to bring a close to the set, and in the encore, another taste of Wildflowers with “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl,” the song that got Petty on the radio and made the then-impossible idea of a 40th anniversary tour possible in the first place.
But beyond the superlatives and commemorations, this was just a great night. For two hours, Petty and the Heartbreakers stepped up and delivered far more than a cursory run-through of their catalog. They reminded their fans that they’re still the blueprint American band, and then they more than lived up to that reputation.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org