Review: Tom Petty, Heartbreakers still rockin' around with vigor after 40-plus years
What makes rock legend Tom Petty such an icon of cool alongside the likes of Keith Richards? It's the raw nature of the sound of his band the Heartbreakers, the character of his voice and, perhaps most of all, his laconic Southern presence.
BALTIMORE — If this ongoing 40th anniversary tour is the last dance for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the band is playing out on a high note.
During a sold-out, two-hour-plus performance at Royal Farms Arena on Sunday, the California-via-Florida purveyors of heartland roots rock blitzed through a hit-packed playlist.
The core unit of the current Heartbreakers lineup — Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair — first toured as a band in 1976. Blair, who played on the Heartbreakers' first four albums, left and returned before his replacement Howie Epstein died in 2003. Guitarist/keyboardist Scott Thurston joined the band in 1991.
Drummer Steve Ferrone replaced founding member Stan Lynch after Ferrone played on Petty's 1994 solo album Wildflowers. "We call him the new guy because he's only been in the band 24 years," Petty joked onstage.
The tour, which began in April and hits New York and Philadelphia this week and winds down in late September in L.A., is likely the "last big one," as Petty recently told Rolling Stone. He describes a live show that covers the band's career "like it's a one-sided vinyl record and we're gonna drop the needle all over it."
It's a set list that has remained fairly constant on the tour's previous dates, but the songs sound fresh and vibrant. Petty bookended the night by opening with the first song from the band's eponymous 1976 debut release, the upbeat Rockin' Around (With You), and closing with classic rock staple American Girl, the album's final track.
Five of the 19 selections came from the multiplatinum Wildflowers. During the percussive You Don't Know How It Feels, the frontman signaled the tight-knit group for dramatic stops and starts.
He engaged Campbell, who was wearing an Oriole-orange shirt, in an elegant guitar conversation during It's Good to Be King, with added texture from Tench's keyboards. Then, suddenly, Ferrone delivered a blast of drums and the performance escalated into a coordinated clamor led by Campbell's furious fretwork.
Petty encouraged the crowd to sing along with I Won't Back Down, from his 1989 first solo album Full Moon Fever. The audience accompaniment increased even more on Free Fallin'. A superb sound system helped prevent the event from becoming a massive karaoke scene.
Speaking of voices, Petty, at 66, remains a powerful singer. Not all appreciate his nasal Dylanesque delivery, but he's intelligible and his lyrics don't get lost in the mix.
Another pair of vocalists who transformed the performances: backup singers Charley and Hattie Webb. The two English women perform as the Webb Sisters and previously toured with the late Leonard Cohen. They added a lush layer of harmonies throughout, especially during the reflective Crawling Back to You.
Should it be the last hurrah for the Petty and the Heartbreakers, 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, this great American band got lucky enough to take a well-deserved victory lap.
Rockin’ Around (With You)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
You Don’t Know How It Feels
You Got Lucky
I Won’t Back Down
Don’t Come Around Here No More
It’s Good to Be King
Crawling Back to You
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down A Dream
You Wreck Me
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.