Tom Petty is the author of so many songs woven into the fabric of my life, I almost forget how great they actually are.
Until he plays them right in front of my face, that is, and then I remember all over again what made me love them in the first place.
Petty is taking his Heartbreakers out on the road this summer for what he says could be the last big-top road trip of their longstanding careers. If so, it’s a shame, because as he proved Saturday night at Nissan Pavilion, there’s nobody out there quite like the Mad Hatter. He’s a showman without being cheesy, a craftsman without being rote, and, even after 30-plus years, can still put on one incredible show.
It’s truly amazing the depth of this man’s work when five of the first six songs Saturday night were the following: “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Falling,” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” That lineup could CLOSE a show and bring the house down, much less open it! But, as Petty said, “We’ve got a lot of music for you tonight.”
After a trio of excellent cover songs (well, does a Wilburys song count as a cover?), Petty brought out a surprise special guest: Stevie Nicks, who he described as his “soul sister.” Look, I don’t even own a Fleetwood Mac album, but this was still pretty cool, if nothing else than for the shock value. And it was easy to tell the two of them were having a great time, both on the beautiful, quiet duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and the uptempo “I Need to Know.”
Up next was “Melinda,” a song Petty’s never recorded but remains nonetheless a longstanding concert favorite. The song showcases something else about this band that you might not expect—they love to jam. Nearly every song is stretched beyond its original borders with an extra coda, an extended intro, or, as is the case here, long jams in the middle, this time courtesy of keyboardist Benmont Tench. Petty doesn’t rush through anything. The lights go down at the end of each song, punctuating the quality and meaning of every entry in the set. And when such care and attention is given to everything he does, it makes Petty’s two-hour set feel more like three.
Petty slowed things down a bit with a trio of quieter tunes, highlighted by one of two new songs unveiled Saturday off his forthcoming “Highway Companions” album. Both were fantastic, including the acoustic “Square One” (destined to be a classic) and slow-builder “Saving Grace,” which fit nicely into the set’s opening sextet of power chords.
After a big singalong during a slowed-down version of “Learning to Fly,” Petty & Co. revved up again to close the set with three more classics. Each of these were played with so much power and passion, I thought they all would end the set. It’s hard to beat the trio of “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Refugee,” and “Running Down A Dream.”
So, let me pause here to mention the awesome stage setup for this tour. There are four large video screens at the back of the stage which, at various times, move up and down and have either a live shot of the band or images that complement the music. Meanwhile, a series what I can only assume are LCD screens hang in rows from the ceiling, made to resemble cabaret-style lights. These, too, are movable, and are often synchronized with the scenes from the four big screens. The production summarizes Petty perfectly: Just enough show to make you sit up and take notice, enough to add a little umph to the performance, but never distracting. Sensible, judicious, … perfect.
The band closed the show with a fine trio, “You Wreck Me,” “Mystic Eyes” (which I believe is a Van Morrison cover), and the staple “American Girl,” which also closed the group’s first album way back in 1976.
I know Petty says this tour is the final major hoorah for his beloved highway companions, but I just can’t believe it. At 55, the iconic frontman looks as spry as ever, spinning and prowling around the stage like it’s 1976, not 2006. If this truly is The Heartbreakers’ last big go-round, then we’ll all be missing a little something in summertimes to come. Because this band and this show are flat-out phenomenal.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Listen to Her Heart
You Don’t Know How It Feels
I Won’t Back Down
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
I’m A Man (Yardbirds cover)
Oh Well (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Handle with Care (Traveling Wilburys)
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (w/Stevie Nicks)
I Need to Know (w/Stevie Nicks)
Insider (w/Stevie Nicks)
Learning to Fly
Don’t Come Around Here No More
Running Down a Dream
You Wreck Me
Mystic Eyes (Van Morrison cover)
Running Time: 2 hours
•••And a note about opener Trey Anastasio***
I’m certainly no Phish-head, but this guy has totally won me over. I highly recommend his latest solo album, “Shine,” and I am THERE whenever he comes this way again as a headliner. Saturday’s 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough.