Review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

What happened on the first night of the Fonda Theatre residency?

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Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers took a tour of the past last night. Combing through a catalogue brimming with greatest hits, the band opened their six-night residency with a rich set of covers, deep cuts, and rarities.

Kicking off the night with a cover of the Byrds’ 1967 classic “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” Petty, 62, spent the evening paying homage to the artists who sculpted him. Bands like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Doors, he said, are what drew him to the West Coast over 30 years ago. His easy Southern charm and fluid pacing give him an effortless appeal, but the Gainesville, Florida native is undeniably a Los Angeles man in a Los Angeles band. The California sound courses through the veins of every Tom Petty song, even during tracks from Southern Accents or the spacey detour during “Tweeter and Monkey Man,” the Traveling Wilburys track co-written by Petty and Bob Dylan. Last night’s show felt like a homecoming, a mash note to the fans who made him.

“Here we are in Hollywood. All my life I wanted to go to Hollywood,” Petty shared in his languid drawl. He recalled moving here in the mid ’70s at the age of 23. “There are so many great bands here and there always have been. We were looking out into the alley in the back, kind of picturing all the great musicians who’d been in and out that door. I used to do that down at the Whisky a Go Go.” He then dedicated a cover of Little Feat’s “Willin’” to “the ghost of Lowell George,” the band’s late singer.

With its focus on album tracks, not singles, the 20-song set was something of a nirvana for longtime fans. Petty peppered the set with just enough sing-along gold—”I Won’t Back Down,” “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” and acoustic version of “Rebels”—to satisfy the adoring, multi-generational crowd at the Fonda Theatre, reminding old school Petty fans what makes him so universally prized. 

The heart of the evening, though, rested in the deep cuts. There is cause for alarm when a band announces it will be playing songs it rarely plays; little-known tracks are sometimes little known for a reason. That’s not the case here. The band dusted off “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” from their self-titled 1976 debut, “Billy the Kid” from Echo—”We’ve made many trips to the psychiatrist to talk about why we don’t play songs from Echo,” Petty joked—and “Cabin Down Below,” “Hard To Find a Friend,” and “You Wreck Me” from Petty’s solo album Wildflowers. “Melinda,” which only appears on a live album, proved to be one of the night’s highlights due to its muscular piano solo from Benmont Tench.

Petty’s vocals were spot on, crystal clear and less twangy than he can sometimes be. Even during their most up-tempo tracks, he’s in no particular hurry, his signature blonde hair swaying as he grooves. The same goes for the Heartbreakers, who proved why, pound for pound, they’re one of the most solid bands around. Tench’s keys, Ron Blair’s bass, Steve Ferrone’s drums and Scott Thurston’s multi-instrumentalism filled out each track beautifully, but it was lead guitarist Mike Campbell, in particular, who cranked out solo after fiery solo without batting an eye.

As the night came to a close, Petty guided us back from the depths of his songwriting career and fittingly left us “where it all began” with “American Girl.” Smiling, pointing, and saluting the audience as if we were the ones who somehow deserved the cheers, he threw his arms around the Heartbreakers at the front of the stage, accepted sunflowers from the crowd, and strolled away with a peace sign and, of course, that unflappable grin.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers will continue their weeklong residency at the Fonda tonight and on June 6, 8, 9 and 11.

Setlist:
So You Want to Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star
Love Is a Long Road
I Won’t Back Down
Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)
Cabin Down Below
Good Enough
Stepping Stone
Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)
Billy the Kid
Tweeter and Monkey Man
Rebels
Hard to Find a Friend
Angel Dream
Willin’
Melinda
I Should Have Known It
Refugee
Runnin’ Down a Dream

Encore:
You Wreck Me
American Girl

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