BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
It started, fittingly enough, with the first song from the first album that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers produced 40-ish years ago – “Rockin’ Around (With You)” – and ended with the last song from that self-titled album, the thumping pool hall classic, “American Girl.”
Sandwiched between those guitar-driven nuggets Thursday night at Philips Arena was a two-hour-plus rock ‘n’ roll history lesson, replete with audience participation and much gratitude from the man in the spotlight.
There are certain Petty-isms that, even at 66, haven’t changed: The lank, fair hair. The rocker-chic garb (shades, plum vest and jacket). The effortless interplay with guitarist Mike Campbell. The woozy Southern accent.
A few dates into an anniversary tour that will keep the band on the road throughout the summer, Petty promised “no artificial sweetner” at the start of the concert. He and the band retained that pledge with a lean, sinewy set that highlighted fan favorites (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Got Lucky”) and allowed Petty to indulge in a few personal picks (“Walls,” “Wildflowers”).
Performing on an expansive stage featuring a large video screen behind drummer Steve Ferrone and dotted with four screens facing fans on every side, Petty and the Heartbreakers made sure that if this is indeed their last big run, it would be memorable.
The mostly well-paced set list hopscotched through the band’s – and Petty’s solo album – history, drawing from 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes” (“Refugee”) and 2010’s “Mojo” (the Zeppelin-esque “I Should Have Known It”) alike.
A three-song spate of “Wildflowers” tracks, including the tick-tock sway of “It’s Good to Be King” – featuring a mesmerizing mid-song breakdown that prompted a woman behind me to utter about Petty, “Play that guitar, you sexy beast” – and the gently rambling “Time to Move On,” marked the only time most of the sold-out crowd plopped into their seats.
But who was going to argue with the decision to strip “Learning to Fly” of its chugging percussion and instead re-arrange it as a pretty, subdued anthem powered by Campbell’s electric mandolin?
No one. Because it sounded that good.
Petty made sure to spend a few minutes introducing his bandmates – some, such as legendary keyboardist/organist Benmont Tench, he’s known since childhood, while others, such as the female backup duo Charley and Hattie Webb, are new to the team.
After giving a nod to multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and bassist Ron Blair, Petty looked distracted, then chuckled and said, “I’m sorry, I was just thinking about my 20s.”
He also referred to the still somewhat-dreadlocked Campbell as “one of rock ‘n’ roll’s truly great guitarists,” a qualification that was underscored during the smoky mysticism of “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
The song is built more on its background chorus than Petty’s reedy lead vocal, but it’s really the escalating cloud of guitars, handled here by Petty and Campbell as the stage turned into a blur of strobe lights, that solidify its greatness.
As Petty sings in “Learning to Fly,” “Well the good ol’ days may not return/And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn,” we don’t know if this tour indeed marks the end of the Heartbreakers on stage. If this was goodbye, then we can all thank Petty and the band for one more good ol’ day for the memory bank.
Scraggly lovable Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh opened the show with an hour-long set that included a five-piece band (with two drummers) and four backup singers – but it was always Walsh and his still-sharp guitar playing that captivated.
Welcoming the crowd with a shrug that said, “You’ve got me as part of this tour, too,” Walsh dug into “Ordinary Average Guy,” his James Gang favorite “Funk #49” and the barroom singalong, “Life’s Been Good.”
But the crowd roared its loudest when he dedicated a song to his friend and former bandmate, Glenn Frey, and unfurled a deliberate, passionate, “Take it to the Limit.”
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