Tom Petty swung his arms wide to a sold-out crowd of 16,500, flashing a mischievous grin beneath a sandy dune-grass beard, and exposing the regal purple lining of his topcoat.
“We’re bringing you 100 percent natural rock and roll!” he shouted to the fans at Tampa’s Amalie Arena Saturday night. “No artificial sweetners! Can you say Yeah!? And no corporate sponsors! We are brought to you by you!”
It may be standard banter anywhere else, but here in Florida, Petty’s words ring especially true. Two hours south of the Heartbreakers' hometown, Saturday’s gig in Tampa was as close to Gainesville as they're getting these days. And on this 40th anniversary tour, they milked every moment of it, sounding energized, empowered and emboldened by all the Sunshine State love.
“This is really surreal to be here all these years later,” Petty said. “I’ve got a lot of friends here, a lot of family. I got so many friends in the dressing room I had to buy a liquor license just for them. But I sure do love ‘em all.”
It was an epic night from start to finish, thanks in large part to the other Rock and Roll Hall of Famer opening the show: Cockeyed classic rock crustacean Joe Walsh, who wowed the crowd with burnout humor ("Good morning!" he croaked at the stroke of 8 p.m.), van-rockin' FM staples (In the City, Funk 49, Life's Been Good, Rocky Mountain Way), planetarium-worthy solos (Turn to Stone), and one all-time Eagles classic (Take It to the Limit), dedicated to "my brother and fellow bandmate" Glenn Frey.
In addition to their wizardly locks, Walsh and Petty have a similar high, nasal tone that's aged pretty well on them both. But Petty also has the Heartbreakers, a trump card any singer would kill for.
Kicking off the night with the rockabilly spark of Rockin’ Around (With You), the very first song off their very first album, the ‘Breakers dipped into their catalog in some invigorating ways, drawing songs and solos out to jam-band levels – and the show itself nearly all the way to midnight. The band clearly had nowhere to be but right here, digging as deep into their musicianship as possible.
Petty and guitarist/co-genius Mike Campbell volleyed back and forth on an electrifying, oh-hell-yes ending to Mary Jane’s Last Dance. It’s Good To Be King -- part of a suite of lovely deeper cuts from Petty’s 1994 solo album Wildflowers, including the heartfelt title track and meditative Crawling Back To You – was a knock-down-drag-out jamfest, 10 minutes at least, with Campbell and Petty fret to fret by the end, burning that mother to a crisp.
All night, the rest of the band was right there with them. Drummer Steve Ferrone kicked off an all-hands-on-deck Don’t Come Around Here No More, which featured twinkling piano work from Benmont Tench just behind Ron Blair’s hypnotic bass. Former Leonard Cohen tourmates the Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie, teamed with multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston for some gorgeous harmonies on a tender, acoustic Learning to Fly, which also showcased Campbell on mandolin and Ferrone tinking tiny toy cymbals. You Got Lucky pulsed with Tench’s pouncing synthesizers and moody noodling from both him and Campbell.
“Oh, I feel that mojo in this room,” Petty said after that one.
Oh, you could tell. Here and there, Petty would pop back to the drums for a little puff of smoke, and it had him feeling some kind of special. On You Don’t Know How It Feels, he shook his hips like Elvis; on Free Fallin’, he tipped and tilted his arms like airplane wings as the coda rolled to a close. Any mention of Florida in general, and Gainesville in particular, drew huge cheers in which he basked, beamed and breathed, his aviator-shaded eyes cast all the way to the cheap seats.
“I’m glad you got the hoodoo going in here,” he said.”I’m glad you feel the mojo tonight.”
As always, the Heartbreakers’ set screamed to a frenetic finish: Runnin' Down a Dream, You Wreck Me and American Girl, each more insistent than the last, with Campbell and Petty wailing out solos like they might be their last.
“Before we leave here,” Petty said before American Girl, “I want to hold the world record for the loudest sound ever heard in this building.”
The crowd exploded, because what choice did they have? Here in Florida, Petty is royalty, and as the man once sang, it’s good to be king. Go ahead, Tom, and make it last all night. Your people have no place they'd rather be.
-- Jay Cridlin