Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Nile Rodgers and Chip Taylor perform at Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony in New York. (June 10) AP
It’s been nearly 12 years since Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the first-ever live notes heard inside the walls of Wells Fargo Arena, introducing the long-awaited downtown Des Moines venue to the world of arena rock.
And, on Monday, the renowned group made its anticipated return to Iowa’s biggest indoor stage for a blistering two-hour performance — the band’s sole show in Iowa on what could be its last major North American run — of cross-generational rock ‘n’ roll hits. A crowd of 14,876 flocked to the arena to see Petty in the flesh Monday night, up considerably from the estimated 8,500 who came through the arena doors to catch him in 2005.
“I feel a little mojo building up in here. Have you got your mojo workin’ out there?” he asked the crowd before diving into “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the night’s opening track. “We got a 100 percent rock ‘n’ roll show for ya tonight. That’s right. No artificial sweetener. 100 percent natural rock ‘n’ roll and mojo.”
One-hundred percent natural jams is what Petty delivered during the band’s 19-song, two-hour performance, which comes in celebration of the group’s 40th anniversary.
Not backing down: From “Rockin’ Around,” Petty and the seven-member outfit behind him (five Heartbreakers and two backing singers) went into hit after hit … after hit. Tracks such as “Mary Jane’s Dance,” 2014’s “Forgotten Man,” “You Don’t Know How it Feels” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” all followed, with Petty poised and ready to show why each has stood the test of time.
The fair-haired Floridian with four decades of experience under his belt glows with a down-to-earth nature most artists couldn’t capture in 80 years of gigging. He doesn’t need to tell you when to sing along, you just know. There’s no begging for approval from Petty and his long-time band; he treats the crowd with an unfiltered respect, as if there were 14,000 new members of the band for those two hours on stage.
The connection between Petty and his fans (read: backing chorus of 14,000) shines when the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer delivers time-tested renditions of “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
“Picture 40 years as one big album … we’re just going to drop the needle all over it tonight,” Petty said before performing “You Don’t Know How It Feels.”
Petty's rock ‘n’ roll found its tame side toward the middle of the set, with the frontman delivering acoustic-led renditions of “Wildflowers,” “Learning To Fly” and “Yer So Bad.” Headbangers had little to worry about; the moderate portion of Petty’s set was confined to those numbers.
“We’re gonna turn the amps up loud now,” he said, leaving the acoustics behind to deliver 2010’s lick-leading jam “I Should Have Known It.”
The opening life’s been good: A fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer kicked off the evening’s gig, the genial Midwest-born guitar guru Joe Walsh. Performing 10 tracks for about an hour, Walsh delivered his expected dose of playfulness while pulling from solo, James Gang and Eagles classics.
Fan-favorites “In The City,” “Ordinary Average Guy,” the James Gang’s “Funk #49” and (of course) “Life’s Been Good” all made the setlist, which came delivered by a 10-member, two-drummer band (including Walsh). It marked Walsh’s first time back at Wells Fargo Arena since performing with the Eagles in 2014.
“Good morning,” he exclaimed at 7:30 p.m., before “Meadows,” the evening’s opening number. “Welcome to the 40th Tom Petty anniversary tour. With special guest … me. Ready?”
Understanding Joe Walsh means embracing every moment of his absolute quirk. The tongue-in-cheek, exasperated “listen to this note in the guitar solo” face, the dad-like banter between songs, the playful, talkbox-led jams are all part of Walsh’s self-aware charm.
And it works. Even when he’s poking fun at the on-lookers.
“I noticed there’s some young people here,” he said before “In The City.”
He continued: “I guess they’re Millennials … I’m not sure. They weren’t even born when these records came out. I want to apologize to you for your parents playing my music when you were growing up. … That might explain why you’re different [from] the other kids.”
American encore: Petty and the Heartbreakers brought the ear-ringing main set to a close with back-to-back performances of “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” giving the crowd one last reminder why this band is able to pack an arena in Des Moines on a Monday night more than 40 years after first hitting airwaves.
Following the last note of “ … Dream,” raging chants of “Petty, Petty, Petty” erupted from the 14,000+ who waited for their rock star to return. Petty may show the utmost respect for his audience, but he made them earn Monday night’s encore, letting chants of his name swell before returning to the stage.
He and the group did return, delivering a one-two encore of 1994’s “You Wreck Me” and seminal smash hit “American Girl.”
"You know we were the first band to ever play in this building,” Petty said before heading into the night’s last number. “We want to thank you so much. You’ve given us such a great gift tonight. Let’s hear it for Des Moines.”