One of the first rules of show business is always leave the audience wanting more. Some bands have found that easy enough to do, never quite living up to expectations or by, well, flat out sucking. For more than 30 years, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers have perfected the art of leaving their audience wanting more while still sending them home smiling.
As much as I love live music, there are a lot of obstacles that stand between me and a show on any given night. It takes a lot to get me to deal with Ticketmaster, travel, parking, crowds, and dealing with the time and money constraints. There aren’t many bands I’ve paid to see more than once despite my musical obsession. I saw Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers for the third time last Thursday night in Nashville and they delivered a performance so strong I can guaran-damn-tee I’ll see them a fourth.
Time stood still as the band performed a 90-minute set that blended hits, songs from new album Mojo, and a pair of covers. It’s a trick of pacing they’ve learned from years together. From the opening strains of “Listen To Her Heart” to the rousing finale “American Girl,” The Heartbreakers delivered the goods. Everything about the evening was executed at a nearly flawless level from the lighting, song selection, sequencing, and performance. Petty was in strong voice and lead guitarist Mike Campbell demonstrated once again he is one of the great lead players that never makes the list of “Greatest Guitarists Of All Time.”
In addition to a hits-heavy set, Petty dusted off one deep album cut that has long been a fan favorite. “King’s Highway” has been played regularly this tour but has been one of the few songs occasionally rotated out of a set list that largely remains static over the course of a tour. I crossed my fingers that I’d get it in Nashville and tried not to get my hopes up but I was holding my breath through those early songs until he gave a brief introduction to it at which point my excitement erupted into a boisterous cheer.
On record (it’s from the 1992 album Into The Great Wide Open), it sounds as expansive as its name suggests. On stage, the prettiness of Jeff Lynne’s production is traded for more of a driving rock sound. Either way this remains one of the great gems of Petty’s catalog and the lesson here to he and the band is to keep delving because there are more where this came from.
The four-song Mojo suite seemed well received by a large segment of the fans but was clearly not as well known as the rest of the set. The album was recorded mostly live in the studio with the band all playing in one room and that helped these songs feel right at home on stage as well. “Jefferson Jericho Blues” didn’t work as well live as it should have but Petty and Campbell were able to lock their lead guitar lines in tight unison, keeping things interesting. “Good Enough” is the best song on Mojo and it was spectacular live. Just as on record, Mike Campbell plays soaring, searing leads that burned with beautiful intensity.
The main set ended by sandwiching “Don’t Come Around Here No More” between a beautiful acoustic reading of “Learning to Fly” and a stomping “Refugee.” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is over 25 years old and is known as much for its famous Alice in Wonderland-inspired video as for the song itself. But when The Heartbreakers lock into this one live, it hits harder than anything in their catalog. It’s always been a great song and a favorite song but it still surprises with the vitality and energy it emits. Where Campbell dominated “Good Enough” with tasteful, soaring phrases of extended notes, he unleashes a torrent of fury on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” which is accentuated by the strobe lighting.
The real trick of a Heartbreaker show is that when they leave stage to end the main set, you have trouble remembering what they haven’t played and can’t imagine what they’ll come back with for an encore. The depth of their catalog assures fans there is still something left, and indeed there was. They opened with “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” a song which Campbell usually owns and he was effective on this night but somehow it just didn’t have the same power of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Good Enough.” “Carol,” the Chuck Berry classic, was an opportunity for the great Benmont Tench to play some great piano runs. “American Girl” belonged to Petty and the audience. It’s hard to believe that in a career that has generated so many hits, it was a song from the debut that is the ultimate showstopper and ultimate show closer.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Set List
- Listen To Her Heart
- You Don’t Know How It Feels
- I Won’t Back Down
- Free Fallin’
- Oh Well
- Mary Jane’s Last Dance
- King’s Highway
– Band Intro –
- Jefferson Jericho Blues
- Good Enough
- Runnin’ Mans Bible
- I Should Have Known It
- Learning To Fly
- Don’t Come Around Here No More
- Runnin’ Down A Dream
- American Girl