Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Celebrate Their 40th Anniversary with a Rousing Performance at the Q

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One of the greatest creative partnerships in rock ’n’ roll almost wasn’t — at least that’s the way Tom Petty tells the story. Midway through last night’s sold out show at Quicken Loans Arena, Petty took a moment to introduce each of his longtime traveling comrades, the Heartbreakers.

When he got to Campbell, he spun the tale of how he had gone looking for a guitar player and found a bulletin board ad in the local music store with no phone number — just an address. “We almost didn’t get out of the car, because it was a shaky place — suspicious,” he said.

Meeting the future Heartbreaker for the first time, he was equally concerned by the sight of Campbell’s guitar and figured he might need to start thinking of an excuse to cut and run. But then Campbell started playing and made his case as the pair ran through Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” together. Petty knew he had found his man and told him, “You’re going to be in my band forever.”

Forty years later, the relationship has held together — even as Petty has taken the occasional side trip to work on solo music, Campbell and many of the members of the Heartbreakers would often find their way onto the albums, no matter how those records were ultimately credited. They chose 2017 to celebrate their lengthy collective legacy with a tour that, by design, would be built around nostalgia. “I’m sure you’ve heard we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary,” Petty quipped, early in the night. “If you look at the 40th anniversary as one big record, we’re going to drop [the needle] up and down all night.” You can see a slideshow of photos from the concert here.

Petty and the Heartbreakers began their two-hour set chronologically at the very beginning with “Rockin’ Around With You,” which he noted was “the first song from the first album we ever did.” The timeline flashed forward nearly 20 years to 1993’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” which quickly became the first big sing-a-long of the night. Depending on how far you were into enjoying the evening at that point, we can tell you that it wasn’t your altered state: that hanging ball lighting, which kept changing colors, really did begin to move in a wavy fashion at the midway point of the song, which also featured multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston festively pumping out the familiar harmonica lines.

The evening’s 19-song setlist leaned heavily on two specific fan favorite albums, pulling four tracks from Petty’s initial solo excursion, 1989’s Full Moon Fever and five more from its eventual follow-up, 1994’s Wildflowers. Playing what he referred to as a “small set of songs” from Wildflowers, Petty and the Heartbreakers peeled off three tracks in a row from that record, which often had a beautifully stripped back feel. The title track, which has made a long overdue return to the setlist with this current tour, proved to be one of several nuggets of the night. Petty strummed the opening chords on acoustic, with airy harmonies from the Webb Sisters (“our newest friends,” as he referenced Hattie and Charley Webb, who are providing background vocals for the shows). He noted that their presence fulfills his longtime wish to be able to tour with the duo, known for its own work as well as touring with Leonard Cohen and collaborating with other artists, including Sting, Natalie Maines and Vanessa Carlton. They sweetened the mix, something they would also repeat subsequently on “Learning to Fly,” from 1991’s Into The Great Wide Open.

Songs like “Refugee,” peppered with soaring organ bits from keyboardist Benmont Tench, “You Got Lucky” from 1982’s Long After Dark and especially “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” with mystical work from Campbell (who spent the night reminding fans just how many memorable riffs he’s contributed to the catalog), demonstrated the power of Petty and the band as a unit. Forty years into their journey, it’s still quite something to witness their collective connection as a group. And if this is indeed their last big tour, as Petty has indicated (“We’re all on the backside of our sixties,” as he told Rolling Stone. “I don’t want to spend my life on the road”), they’re going out on the highest possible note.

And they’re doing so with extra rock ’n’ roll artillery on this current run: Kent State alum Joe Walsh opened up the evening with a set that gave a satisfying capsule overview of his career during 70 minutes of stage time. He packed a lot into that space, strolling on stage with a LeBron jersey on — a smart move that brought the house (already nearly full to capacity — fans showed up early) down before he ever played a single note.

Cleveland-bred guitarist Tom Bukovac (a longtime Nashville-based player whom we profiled last year when he came to town with Vince Gill) is a fresh recruit on this current tour, and was grinning ear to ear as he traded riffs with Walsh throughout the set, which got off to a great start with a deeper cut, “Meadows,” from 1973’s The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. In addition to familiar favorites, like the title track from 1991’s Ordinary Average Guy album, which followed as the second song of the set, Walsh lobbed additional deep cuts — including “Mother Says,” a relative obscurity from his Barnstorm era that he first dug out in 2015 for the first time in 30 years during two sold out tour opening concerts in Warren.

Walsh later invited his longtime James Gang comrades, drummer Jimmy Fox and bassist Dale Peters out to jam with the band on the Gang staple “Funk #49.” It’s been a decade since the trio last toured under the James Gang banner, but there were no signs of any rust during the brief moment they shared on stage together. Fingers crossed that they’ll find a way to put the group back together for at least one more run.

Keeping with his class clown persona, there was plenty of humor from Walsh in between the songs as well. After “Turn To Stone,” he said, “I want to welcome the young people, the millennials who weren’t even born when these songs came out and had to listen to them all of the time growing up.” He added, “I guess that explains why we’re a little different than the other kids.” Over the course of his performance, which wrapped up with a powerful twofer of “Life’s Been Good” and “Rocky Mountain Way” (because after all, it ain’t over until Walsh gets out the talk box, right?), he proved that being different is indeed a good thing.

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