If you were a small town kid in the early 80’s, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers songs were essential FM radio companions. They were stories about other small town kids dreaming of a bigger, more deliciously complex world, searching for love and adventure, often getting lost along the way. All set to undeniably catchy riffs that avoided fussy production, delivered with the dry, humble wit and lovable drawl of a reluctant hero who doesn’t even know how fucking cool he is.
In other words, they were songs that were impossible not to love, and so most everyone did, and the songs just kept on coming, year after year, decade after decade.
Friday night’s show at Boston’s TD Garden was packed to the upper balconies with generations of authentic, well-weathered Boston area rock and rollers. If you’re in your 40’s, you were probably the young punk in your row. And while there was plenty of gray hair to be seen, this was no sit-down crowd. This was an on-your-feet-all-night Boston crowd, with Petty Representatives from Revere, Everett, Malden, North Shore, South Shore – name a town where R’s are rarely pronounced, and the fans came.
The night was off to a wickid start with local favorite Peter Wolf warming up the room while concertgoers expertly navigated to their seats, double-fisting full cups of Bud Light and Sam Adams all the way. At a limber 71, Wolf scampered, cavorted, and howled his way across the stage like a true 80’s legend, all sequins, sunglasses and and frizzed out hair. A romping Musta Got Lost had everyone shouting along, and then it was Petty Time.
We got right to the hits, because hits are mostly what they write. You Don’t Know How it Feels, Mary Jane’s Last Dance, and Learning To Fly were played and received with appropriate reverence, and a strange kind of intimacy that only a precious few radio stalwarts like Petty can pull off in a big arena. Into The Great Wide Open, Free Fallin’, and Refugee were massive singalongs that brought cheers and tears, and more than a few spilled beers. Petty and crew were loose and relaxed… perhaps painting by the numbers a bit, but delighting in every stroke.
Besides, this isn’t a band anyone goes to see for overblown stage production or acrobatic musicianship. Musicality is at the heart of every tune. At a Petty show everyone’s there for the songs, the songs, the songs – including the band. Petty was sure to introduce each of the Heartbreakers, making special mention of drummer Steve Ferrone, “…still the new guy after 24 years.” MVP goes to founding Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell for adding tons of tasty musical color while never missing a signature hook.
It’s been said that this 40th anniversary tour might be that last big one for these guys. Standing in the audience, it was easy to imagine them finding contentment in what might be a well-earned, well-played swan song; one of the all-time great American road bands finally, gracefully, easing into a rest. Petty, most of all, projected a sort of calm certainty. He was relaxed. Grateful. Resigned.
But still, those songs…it’s easy to imagine a future where they’re still a major factor in young people’s orientation to the world around them. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Metalhead, a Deadhead, or a Disco Queen, Tom Petty sings for all of us mixed up kids. Forty years later we still show up in droves to celebrate those stories because, for us, the American Girl is still listening to cars roll by from her balcony, Mary Jane’s waiting for one last dance, and we all still have dreams that need runnin’ down.