Photos by Ehud Lazin
With final stops this past week in NYC and Philly, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have just wrapped up the East Coast leg of their 40th Anniversary tour, aka “the last big one.” Having seen more than two dozen previous shows over the years and multiple stops on this tour, it is no stretch to say they have never played or sounded better: they are checking out at their peak.
Throughout the tour, the 17-song, two-hour set list has not varied by more than a track or two each night. After opening with “Rockin Around With You,” the relatively disposable first track they recorded for their debut album, they launch straight into “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” followed by classic after classic like “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Free Fallin’,” right up to the set-closing “Running Down a Dream” and “American Girl.” Having released 16 combined band and solo classic-packed band albums, Tom Petty has amassed a massive song catalog, so almost any fan is going to miss hearing many of their favorite live TP classics and could construct their own alternative two-hour filler-free set, without repeating a single track from Petty’s 40th Anniversary choices. No room this time for former live essentials like “Breakdown,” “Listen to Her Heart,” or “Jamming Me”; nothing here from classic albums like Hard Promises or (save for “Refugee”) even his arguably best-loved release Damn the Torpedos.
The fifth slot at Forest Hills, usually occupied by “You Got Lucky” was replaced by a slowed-down and powerfully majestic “Into the Great Wide Open.” The most regrettable omission this night was the regular first encore of “You Wreck Me.” On that tune, at Ottawa Bluesfest the week before, the back-and-forth-traded solos between two of rock’s all-time best soloists, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, was a real highlight in a set with no low points. With a band including Campbell and the criminally under-heard keyboardist Tench, Petty himself often takes far too many lead guitar solos for an average-at-best player.
Petty’s vocals are breezy and casual, never sounding like he needs to work very hard. Not generally thought of as having of one of rock’s best voices, it’s easy to underestimate him as a singer, but producer Jimmy Iovine—who recorded Damn the Torpedos and other early classic TP albums—claimed that he never, ever, heard Petty do a bad vocal take in the studio. What amazes is just not the perfection of every line he’s sung over the years, but that he seems to extend little effort during his shows, unlike his peers Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen, whose occasional vocal straining is apparent.
Speaking of which, has there ever been a (non-metal) hard rock band able to generate so much energy and excitement by playing so slowly, without seeming to ever break a sweat? With a set list that may clock in at the lowest average BPM out there—but always with a deep and powerful groove—the Heartbreakers may well be the world’s coolest band. They’re definitely national treasures.