I’m standing in a sea of dads, waiting for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to come on stage at the Greek Theatre. Everyone around me holds a pale ale and sports a salt-and-pepper goatee. Merrily clinking glasses and chatting about the last time they saw the Heartbreakers on tour, the crowd radiates camaraderie and good spirit even before the band makes an appearance.
Eventually though, the band does arrive, with each member wordlessly arranging himself in his respective position onstage. Tom Petty, smiling at the cheering crowd, raises his arms and greets his fans the way a benevolent king greets his constituents. “I feel that mojo up in here,” Petty roars. “Can you feel it?” The audience claps and hollers loudly. Petty turns and nods to drummer Steve Ferrone, who proceeds to lay down the beat for their 1976 hit, “Rockin’ Around (With You).”
The jovial and endearing song leads into “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” the latter of which Petty sings with such groovy twang that even the most tired-looking adults rise out of their seats to clap along to the rhythm. Per usual, guitarist Mike Campbell holds each song together with his impeccable instrumental solos. In each piercing guitar riff, Campbell’s facial expression remains stoically unfazed, as if proclaiming to the audience, “Uh huh, it’s really me.” Later on in the night, Petty would tell the story of how he found Campbell from a music store poster the guitarist put up to advertise himself. This story would be one of the few times this night that Campbell would break from his impassive demeanor to grin broadly at his friend.
Following the song “Into the Great Wide Open,” Petty shakes off his black coat and reveals a vest that is the sleeveless version of the exact coat he just removed. “I can hear you singing all the way out in the back, thank you,” he chuckles. The band then dives into performances of “It’s Good to Be King,” “Crawling Back To You,” and “Wildflowers.” Unlike the first half of the show, where the set was composed of brash, impressive tracks, this series of songs featured more unassuming instrumentals that highlight delicateness over grandiosity.
I always wonder whether artists get tired of their own songs. After decades of singing the same popular singles like “Free Fallin” and “Learning to Fly,” I was unsure if Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers still connected with their own music, or if performing live had begun to feel like simply going through the motions. During “Walls (Circus),” however, as Petty cried, “Half of me is ocean / Half of me is sky” I watched him get swept away, even closing his eyes briefly to bask in the full effect of the music. In that moment, Petty’s passion felt achingly tangible, eradicating any doubts I had about his and the Heartbreakers’ will to perform.
The band’s final encore song was “American Girl,” whose steady electric guitar opening sends the audience into a frenzy of applause and dancing. “American Girl” sounds like the easygoing song played during the end credits of a film, a perfect choice to finish the night’s 40th anniversary celebration. A nostalgic track that reminisces on the past without dwelling in regret, the song exemplifies Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ talent for looking back on vibrant memories with joyful, contented peace.