Editor’s note (Oct. 3, 2017): Tom Petty died on Monday night at age 66, just months after playing Royal Farms Arena. What follows is a review of that concert.
Tom Petty rolled his shoulders and shimmied next to his mic stand, only to half-shrug and smirk at his attempts to dance moments later. He was feeling loose.
“I feel a little mojo building up here tonight,” Petty said to the Royal Farms Arena crowd near the start of his two-hour-plus set on Sunday night.
It was hard to blame him. Petty and his longtime back-up quintet the Heartbreakers were in town for the latest stop on their 40th anniversary tour. The act knew what the crowd came to see — not pyrotechnics or obscure, ultra-deep dives into the catalog, but rather the pop-rock hits that have made Petty and Co. one of the most beloved heartland-rock bands ever.
After taking the stage to loud cheers, and without an ounce of pomp, Petty kicked the set off with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the opening track from the group’s 1976 debut album. Then came swaying songs recognizable by their opening chords, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How it Feels.”
As if it wasn’t clear yet, Petty told the crowd the night’s approach would be like “putting the needle all over Side A,” where the singles sit on the vinyl. They delivered accordingly.
Accompanied by two female backup singers, Petty and the Heartbreakers ran through the prerequisites faithfully. “Learning to Fly,” the mid-tempo highlight from 1991’s “Into the Great Wide Open,” inspired an arena-filled sing-along, as did “Yer So Bad,” another staple from the same era.
After “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’” — anthemic qualities still intact all these years later — the 66-year-old frontman was back to stating the obvious.
“We’re having so much fun,” Petty said, emphasizing the final word, and nearly elevating it from stage-banter cliché in the process.
The band sprinkled in a few fan favorites they don’t often play live, Petty said. The icy synth-stabs of “You Got Lucky” was an instant transportation back to 1982, when stars like Petty were discovering the powerful platform of MTV and music videos. After “It’s Good to be King,” Petty introduced his 1994 song, “Crawling Back to You,” like it was a demo the group cooked up in rehearsal.
“We’re going to try this one,” he said, “because you don’t get to Baltimore every day, right?”
The night — which began with a set by Peter Wolf, former vocalist of the J. Geils Band — was driven by gorgeous guitars (a sunburst Rickenbacker, a cherry-red Gibson SG and a traditional Fender Telecaster, to name a few) and Petty’s sandpapered, well-aging vocals. Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell supplied economical solos — more punctuated accents than face-melters but they played effective foils to Petty’s steady strumming.
Never in doubt, the encore ended the night with a one-two punch of Petty favorites that left the singer nearly drowned out by the audience’s singing. Without much of a pause in-between, “You Wreck Me” gave way to “American Girl,” a fitting end not only because it inspired the most dancing in the seats but because it’s the closing song of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ debut record.
The indelible hook — “Oh yeah, all right, take it easy, baby, make it last all night” — doubled as a request of sorts from the fans, who seemed game for another two hours at least.