Of all the artists who have been making music since the 1970s or earlier, it’s safe to say that Tom Petty has continued to be the most continuously relevant — especially considering his maintained popularity and ability to keep writing songs that the current public loves. In that regard he stands alongside Bob Dylan and Sir Paul McCartney — he may not be looked at as influential as those two, but he has managed to stay on the scene since the time when Led Zeppelin was popular, surpassing the generations of Talking Heads, Nirvana, and, more currently, the Y2K auto-tune craze. He’s had songs appear on the charts in every decade since his first appearance in 1977, and even as much as fifteen years later had number one hits that are still heard regularly in venues of all sorts. Granted, his popularity has slowed down recently, but with the release of 2010’s Mojo, Petty showed that he still had some gas left in that engine.
His current tour started last week outside Denver at Broomfield, Colorado’s 1stBank Center — a small arena that has attracted big names from all genres — ranging from Radiohead to Katy Perry, and Skrillex to Phish. Like the Black Keys’ upcoming performances at the venue, Petty’s originally scheduled show on April 19 sold out quickly, prompting an additional date to be added — in Petty’s case the night before. On that sold out night, you could see the range of Petty’s reach just by the age range of people in attendance — from drunk college kids to their drunk parents.
The house lights were turned off as Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers came on stage and started fiddling with their instruments — and with the opening notes of “Listen to Her Heart” they were turned back on to reveal the band already in full swing adorned by a red curtained back drop. Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell held identical Rickenbacker guitars, which each of them would switch out between nearly every song for yet another beautiful instrument — Fender Telecasters, Gibson Firebirds and SG’s – at times it seemed like a classic guitar show (fortunately the guitars recently stolen from the band had been recovered).
Petty wore what appeared to be a three-piece velvet suit, complete with bell-bottoms and a leopard print button down. There may be no other performer out there who could pull this off and still be taken seriously. He was quick to acknowledge the audience, and would do the same for the rest of the night. Having already played the first night, the band had decided that it would be fun to play some deep tracks on this night, as opposed to just the hits. From there, they launched into a slew of unexpected but great tunes including “Here Comes My Girl”, a Traveling Wilbury’s tune “Handle with Care”, and “The Best of Everything” which Petty dedicated to The Band drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, who had passed away earlier that day. Petty took a moment to acknowledge Helm as “one of the greatest people on this Earth” and mentioned that a few Band members had helped record the original version of the song (Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel are all credited on the Southern Accents record). Petty later noted “Have Love, Will Travel” off the 2002 The Last DJ as one of the favorite songs he’s ever written, and told the history of the song “Spike” during an extended vamp. During a cover of J.J. Cale’s “Travelin’ Light”, Petty led The Heartbreakers in an extended jam that was one of the more organically grown musical highlights of the evening.
Of course, he did get into the hits eventually. “Learning to Fly”, “Refugee”, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” were all played to huge cheers and with grand solos by Campbell. Petty, who hadn’t shown off his chops much yet, took the reigns during the encore on “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and ripped through a beautiful guitar solo. With the opening riff of “American Girl”, which would close out the evening, and all the tunes played leading up to the moment, I was reminded again of how powerful a songwriter Petty is. Not only does he have memorable lyrics laced throughout his entire catalog, but there are guitar riffs as well that, unless you’ve never listened to the radio in the last 40 years, you would recognize instantly.