- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

PHILADELPHIA | It’s been a four-decade ride for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and judging by their performance to a sold-out Wells-Fargo Arena in Philadelphia Saturday evening, the rockers will continue to keep coming back as long as the audiences demand it so.

Mr. Petty, dressed in a clownishly loud pink jacket and sporting his ever-present sunglasses, welcomed 19,000 Philadelphians with his typical smile and jocular “still happy to be doing this” air, allowing the Keystone strong to bathe him in adulation before a single lick was played. Not far from Mr. Petty’s right side was his right-hand man, guitarist Mike Campbell, sporting a black leather jacket and a top hat worth of fellow axman Slash.

“We’re going to do the very first track off our very first album,” Mr. Petty informed the crowd as he and The Heartbreakers kicked into “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 self-titled debut, an appropriate way to begin a concert honoring the band’s 40 years in showbiz.

Allowing no energy to dissipate, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” immediately followed, which led right into one of Mr. Petty’s better-known solo hits, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” from his wildly successful 1994 album “Wildflowers.”

Only one song was played from the band’s most recent record, 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye,” and this was “Forgotten Man,” a paean to the downtrodden that would rightfully be more at home on any Springsteen setlist, and which felt somewhat out of place in Saturday’s show.

But for the next hour, it was all the high-octane hits of yesterday, including “I Won’t Back Down,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” “Free Fallin’” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which somehow for me still loses part of its appeal when not paired with its fanciful and subversive, “Alice in Wonderland”-style music video from 1985.

Always one to take on flights of fancy, Mr. Petty then played three more songs from “Wildflowers,” making it the most represented album of the evening — which is quite fine by me. While some in the arena retook their seats for this side journey, the Petty faithful remained on their feet for “It’s Good to Be King” and “Crawling Back to You,” the mellow, mournful penultimate track from “Wildflowers” about being lost and lonely in Los Angeles, and which features one of Mr. Petty’s most stinging yet greatest lyrics: “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”

The trip back to “Wildflowers” was capped with the titular opening track, with Mr. Petty and his crew playing before giant screens illuminated with flowing fields of flora.

Wasting no words, Mr. Petty plucked on his acoustic guitar the opening riffs of “Learning to Fly,” and true to his style, he entreated the audience to fill in the chorus for him late in the song while Mr. Petty free-styled vocals as 19,000 Philadelphians sang back to him words he had written 26 years before.

“Yer So Bad,” from Mr. Petty’s first solo record, “Full Moon Fever,” immediately followed with its warnings of the pitfalls of choosing wrongly in love — as so many of us have and/or will again.

It was as good a time as any, then, to introduce the audience to his band members, many of whom have been with Mr. Petty since the beginning. (He referred to drummer Steve Ferrone, who joined the group in 1994, as “the new guy.”) Mr. Petty made special mention of keyboardist Benmont Tench, whom Mr. Petty met at age 11 when they were growing up together in Florida, and then regaled the audience with an anecdote about responding to an ad in a local paper for a guitarist, which led Mr. Petty far off the Floridian beaten path to an address where he met guitarist Mr. Campbell, who appeared from the doorway of a shack and then launched into a Chuck Berry riff.

“I knew then I wanted him to play with me forever,” Mr. Petty said of his friend, who, along with Mr. Tench, moved with Mr. Petty from their Florida home to Los Angeles in the ‘70s to follow their dreams.

Mr. Petty also took time out to recognize Charley and Hattie, The Webb Sisters, a pair of backup singers who have been with him for only a short while but nonetheless pitched in ably on vocals.

For the final act of the evening, Mr. Petty et al. rolled out “I Should Have Known It” from 2010’s “Mojo” before tripping back through time yet again for “Refugee” and a spirited rendition of “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Mr. Petty saluted the crowd and bade goodnight, but there was little question, given the cheers, he would return shortly.

Mr. Petty did retake the stage, lighting up the encore with “You Wreck Me,” the fifth and final song of the evening from “Wildflowers.” And, as if there were any doubt, “American Girl” closed out the night, with a montage of women of all ages, races and walks of life projected on the screens behind the band.

After a final bow, with the entire band lined up on either side of him, Mr. Petty returned one final time to the mic with a “God bless and good night.”

This was my fifth time seeing the band, and each time I have left, if not disappointed, at least somewhat crestfallen that during none of those shows has he ever once played a track from “The Last DJ,” the 2002 anti-epic album poem about the death of freeform radio and the corporatization of media. It remains one of my few great regrets in life that I did not see him on that tour, as the album remains one of my absolute favorites of all time.

However, from a production and audience-pleasing standpoint, I completely understand.

Tom, if you’re reading this, know that you have touched my life in many ways over the years, both with “The Last DJ” and with so many other songs before and since.

It will be enchanting to see what the next 40 years have in store for you, good sir.

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