I wonder how many fans in attendance at Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show at Hi-Fi Buys Amphitheatre in Atlanta remember the show began with “Listen to Her Heart.” “Listen to Her Heart,” a good song and minor hit from You’re Gonna Get It, was followed by “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Won’t Back Down,” and “Free Fallin.'” As Petty & Co. rolled through those next three songs I remember thinking to myself, half-joking, “Save some for later.”
Petty and his Heartbreakers are celebrating the 30-year anniversary of their self-titled debut. Despite rolling through three of the biggest hits of his career, there were plenty more great songs to fill out the set list. In addition to this being the band’s 30-year anniversary tour, Petty is also promoting his new solo album, Highway Companion. Fans wondering if this tour is more about 30 years or HC will be pleased or disappointed to know, depending on your perspective on the matter, only two songs from the new disc were performed (“Saving Grace” and “Square One”).
The big surprise of the evening was the guest appearance of Stevie Nicks. Nicks opened a few select dates on the first leg of the tour and has popped up sporadically since. Tonight was one of those nights and she was on stage for a good portion of the show – there was a microphone with scarves already draped over it prior to the opening notes of “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” She then took lead on Petty’s 1978 classic “I Need to Know.” Before leaving the stage, she joined Petty in an emotional interpretation of “Insider.” The pain in the lyrics was palpable as was the connection between these old friends and old pros, rarely breaking eye contact during the performance.
Among the highlights of the evening was “Learning to Fly.” The pop jangle of the studio version (from the excellent Jeff Lynne produced Into The Great Wide Open album) was stripped away, revealing a somber, meditative side of the song. As Petty encouraged the crowd to sing the chorus as the rest of the band dropped out, he began singing improvised words about flying above his troubles and leaving them behind. It is clear, even on the studio version, “Learning to Fly” is not about flying airplanes; it is about something bigger. As he sang a capella while the crowd repeated the chorus, the metaphor became clearer. For a few moments, it felt as if Petty himself was floating above the stage and the crowd. Before bringing the song to a close, Benmont Tench was given a few bars to weave some beautiful piano magic into the tapestry of an amazing evening. It was all quite moving.
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” was extended to allow Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell to trade solos. Campbell, introduced as the “right-hand man,” provided all the evidence anyone would ever need for why Petty has not made a record without him in 30 years during the one-two punch of “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Keith Richards has talked about the difference between guitar virtuosos and the kind of guitarists who can work in bands. Campbell will never make anyone’s list of “Greatest Rock Guitarists” but he excels at playing memorable leads in the context of Petty’s compact songs. As I expected, “Saving Grace” comes alive onstage.
It is tough to pick highlights when there were no lowlights. The other moment that jumps out was the performance of “Handle With Care.” Scott Thurston, who has been a part of the band for a few years now, is no Roy Orbison but he does a mighty fine job of singing those high parts. This is such a great song and it is great to hear it being performed. Dear Powers That Be: Get those Wilbury albums back in print. Seriously!
Listen to Her Heart (You’re Gonna Get It)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Greatest Hits)
Won’t Back Down (Full Moon Fever)
Free Fallin’ (Full Moon Fever)
Saving Grace (Highway Companion)
I’m a Man*
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (feat. Stevie Nicks) (Through The Years: An Anthology)
I Need to Know (Stevie Nicks, lead vocals) (You’re Gonna Get It)
Handle With Care (Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1)
Square One (Highway Companion)
Insider (feat. Stevie Nicks) (Hard Promises)
Learning to Fly (feat. Stevie Nicks on BGV) (Into The Great Wide Open)
Don’t Come Around Here No More (feat. Stevie Nicks on BGV) (Southern Accents)
Refugee (Damn the Torpedoes)
Runnin’ Down a Dream (Full Moon Fever)
You Wreck Me (Wildflowers)
American Girl (feat. Stevie Nicks on BGV) (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
* – cover