Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
April 29, 2017
Wary antennae of unease extended last December when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers announced their upcoming, and now ongoing, 40th-anniversary tour. Within the well-deserved hosannas toasting America’s most dependable, indispensable rock and roll band making yet another lap of the nation that loves them so lay the concealed, bittersweet implication that there may not be many more like it. Petty may be more aware of this than the rest of us; “take me as I come ’cause I can’t stay long,” he once sang — coming up on 24 years ago now.
Certainly Petty, who is 66, seems the type of musician who will keep playing until either his fingers or his mind betrays him. Saturday night, in front of a full house at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, he and the Heartbreakers gave no indication whatsoever such an outcome is likely to happen anytime soon. If the six men onstage, aided immeasurably by siblings Charley and Hattie Webb on backup vocals, acted like a bunch of guys in their sixties, it was only because they showed the reflexive chemistry and easy musical intuition of people who have played thousands of shows together, and who like to joke about their drummer of nearly a quarter-century being the “new guy.” (Take a bow, Steve Ferrone.)
Something like an anniversary tour can’t help but bring on hope that the artist in question will use the occasion for something more than a perfunctory run through the "greatest hits." All too often that’s exactly what fans get, to their nearly inevitable disappointment, but with the Heartbreakers it gets complicated. Petty and company are responsible for more than their fair share of true classic-rock anthems over the past couple of generations, but their catalog of near-misses, fan favorites and hidden gems is so vast they could have easily doubled Saturday’s two-hour running time and still not played everything we — okay, I — wanted to hear. Never let it be said rock stars have it easy.
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Still, the 19-song set, played amid a breeze that felt more like it was fall creeping in and a shower that did nothing to dampen the spirits on the Pavilion’s lawn, tossed out a few curveballs in lieu of any outright surprises. Opening with the first song on the band’s eponymous 1976 debut LP, “Rockin’ Around With You,” was a sweet gesture, but they didn’t really lock in until “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” one song later. When everything clicks into place like that, instrument by instrument and then all at once — Petty and Mike Campbell’s guitars, Benmont Tench’s keyboards, Ron Blair’s bass and last but not least Scott Thurston’s harmonica — you know it’s going to be a good night.
Elsewhere, we got “Forgotten Man,” a Bo Diddley rewrite with a pointed pre-Trump message from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, which Petty introduced by chuckling that the band still makes new albums, too; and “Walls (Circus),” a track from 1996’s nearly forgotten She’s the One that contains some of Petty’s most poignant poetry and benefited from the slight increase in tempo. “I Should Have Known It,” the muscular blues-rocker from 2010’s Mojo, has now survived into its third consecutive tour and continues making a forceful argument that the Heartbreakers are hardly mellowing with age.
Continuing on to the hits, by your fifth or sixth Heartbreakers show it starts becoming fun to guess how far into the set “Free Fallin’” will come (seventh) or whether they’ll ever close the main set with anything besides “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (hell no). Even here, though, the band can still pull a surprise or two out of Petty’s old Alice In Wonderland top hat, like the reappearance of 1982’s “You Got Lucky” or the new dimension added by the Webb Sisters, lately of the late, great Leonard Cohen’s band. Their part on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” alone made Petty’s long-ago assertion about there not being any girls in the Heartbreakers sound downright silly. Come back, Stevie Nicks; all is forgiven.
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When all was said and done, the Pavilion’s video screens would leave us with the original American girl — the Statue of Liberty — but first a few words about Wildflowers. While not strictly a Heartbreakers album, it’s one Petty can’t seem to stay away from live. Saturday, it was responsible for more than one-quarter of the set list, and some of the most magical moments — not only on the wistful title track, but also “It’s Good to Be King,” which became an extended psychedelic jam with plenty of room for Petty, Campbell and Tench to stretch out; and an abbreviated but no less heartfelt “Crawling Back to You” directly afterward.
Not coincidentally, that album has its 25th anniversary coming up in two years. Perhaps that’s the Heartbreakers’ next tour, or so we fans can only hope.
Rockin’ Around With You
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
You Don’t Know How It Feels
You Got Lucky
I Won’t Back Down
Don’t Come Around Here No More
It’s Good to Be King
Crawling Back to You
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
You Wreck Me