By Megan Volpert
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are turning forty this year, celebrating with a summer arena tour. The Philips Arena show last night was their fifth gig and showcased the same setlist as the previous three gigs, despite Petty’s comments during the planning stages that gave consideration to the possibility of more flexible set lists and some more obscure cuts. The concert proved that this is a band with a deep bench of singles, and over the course of 19 songs the band touched on nearly every album in its extensive catalog.
The one rarity of the bunch was the very first song of the night, “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first track on the band’s self-titled debut album from 1976. TPHB hasn’t played it since the early ’80s, but there was no more fitting way to begin to reflect on their four decades of “100 percent rock and roll,” as Petty shouted when he took the stage wearing a purple jacket and vest. The Heartbreakers were sporting a variety of cool hats on their shaggy heads, with pianist Benmont Tench’s in a Panama, lead guitarist Mike Campbell in a deadman’s topper and versatile sideman Scott Thurston in a pork pie.
The gang also welcome two new backup singers, the Webb Sisters. Since 2008, English sibling duo Charley and Hattie had had the pleasure of working with dearly departed Leonard Cohen when he reemerged to tour again after a 15 year hiatus. Petty saw them play with Cohen and said, “it’s been a dream of mine” to work with them and that taking them on the tour “really makes the boys behave.” Their harp and guitar skills were not in evidence last night, but they did occasionally play tambourine in addition to contributing backing vocals for the entire set. Sometimes Petty himself accompanied them as backup while turning the main vocals over to the crowd, as on “Learning to Fly” and “I Won’t Back Down,” when he encouraged the audience by commenting, “you know, I can hear you singin’ all the way up here, and it’s a lovely sound.” There was also early speculation that opener Joe Walsh might sit in for a song or two, but the band remained focused on what they have always delivered as an island unto themselves.
Petty told the crowd that he wanted to “just touch down all the way through those 40 years.” As on their previous tours, there was little consideration for fancy special effects or eye-catching background videos. They ran a bunch of old photographs of the band and included clips from their storied run of artistic videography from the early days of MTV. Many of those clips are as iconic as the songs in them, such as “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which was perhaps the only somewhat melancholy song of the evening. At least once per decade, Petty writes an album that really digs into his down-tempo and sneering cynicism, as in 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough), 1999’s Echo, and 2002’s The Last DJ. But the albums where Petty has a serious bone to pick are not often indulged in concert and so far they are not represented in this tour’s greatest hits set list.
One of the band’s most unusual works was the soundtrack for 1996’s romantic comedy She’s the One, critically praised but seldom heard in concert. Petty noted, “this is a a song we hardly ever get to play, but I wanted to play it,” and then the band broke out “Walls.” Their bandleader does not tend to be chatty during shows, and he generally keeps things light when he does banter. Petty doesn’t wade into presidential politics in part because he knows a lot of his fans, especially in the South, might disagree with him. Instead, he just stood at the mic, smiling as he sang “even walls fall down.” During “Forgotten Man,” they rolled footage of homeless people sleeping in front of the White House. The band doesn’t like to make a big deal about it, but they do get cheeky with references sometimes upon close examination. At the first show on the tour, they rolled out “American Dream Plan B,” but it got nixed for subsequent shows.
Many of the tracks from She’s the One actually began as options for 1994’s Wildflowers, which is technically billed as a solo album despite the fact that all the Heartbreakers other than original drummer Stan Lynch played on it. Petty has been talking a lot about his interest in doing a reissue this year for the complete Wallflowers double album that he originally intended to make, and then also doing a tour of smaller venues to strip things down and really consider how that album hangs together. Those plans were put on a back burner for the big anniversary tour, but it’s evident that the band is gearing up to head in that direction soon. Last night’s set list showcased five out of the 15 Wildflowers songs. Full Moon Fever, Petty’s 1989 solo album of twelve tracks, also featured heavily with four out of its five singles.
To do the math, nine of last night’s 19 songs were from albums where the Heartbreakers do not have their name on the cover. Despite Petty’s predictable pendulum swings toward these mildly more isolationist phases of creativity, it’s clear that the band still feels as much ownership over the songs wrought in those moments as the ones were they got proper billing. After all, some of these men have known each other since they were knee high to a grasshopper. The secret of their success seems to be a willingness to let bygones by bygones and focus on the good vibes of their music. When introducing Tench, Petty chuckles, “We’ve known each other since 11 years old. His mother didn’t want me around, cause I was a bad influence.”
After 50 years, the mutual good influence between them is a given. Petty still delivers that nasal twang without mimicking his own studio vocals too closely or becoming a caricature of himself. Campbell can meander through waves of sustains as clear as a bell, and he’s showing off a resurgent commitment to playing with slides and his whammy bar to muddy things up. Steve Ferrone continues to make it look easy, swinging away at his kit without ever breaking a sweat. Thurston remains their sharpest instinct for filling in the glue wherever it’s needed. Tench contributes an etherial gloss to everything he touches, floating honky tonk fills that never jump at low-hanging fruit of the obvious notes.
They’re still tight and they know what they can do best. Early in the show, Petty reminded the audience, “we still make new records and we try really hard on ‘em.” There are two ways of looking at a band as predictable as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: some will dismiss them as a stale legacy act, but others can see it’s a distillation of their essence. I’m in the latter camp. As a serious Pettyhead who waits for B-sides in concert with bated breath, even I have to admit that TPHB’s approach is what an anniversary tour should look like.