Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers American Airlines Center, Dallas Friday, September 26, 2014
When the iconic opening riff to "Mary Jane's Last Dance" soared through the American Airlines Center on Friday night to begin the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' second number, it was clear the night would be a crowd-pleasing, hit-filled one. After almost 40 years of recording, Petty has amassed a number of household-name hit tunes, but to break out such a transcendently popular one that early was a telling choice. It was a good sign for the folks who came to revel in sing-along memories yet an ominous signal for the Petty purists who might've hoped for some deeper cuts and less-frequently played songs from the man that seems to be ageless.
With great energy and a constant smile on his face, the 63 year-old Petty, who sported blue jeans tucked into his leather boots, wasn't a band leader as much as he was a tent revival preacher. And in that spirit, Friday night was about communal fun as the vast majority of the group's almost two-hour set consisted of songs even non-Petty fans can hum along to in their sleep.
With the effortless touch of a man that knows how to command a crowd of thousands, Petty went right from the shout-along chorus of "Oh my my, oh hell yes, you got to put on that party dress" from the 1993 classic into one of his latest album's, 2014's Hypnotic Eye, many groove-based rock tunes, "American Dream Plan B." The crowd went along for the ride, to say the least. This pattern of old-new-old would would pop up throughout the night a couple more times as Petty avoided the mistake that many classic rock acts make of blocking off a four or five song section of the set to new songs many may not care about.
Aside from three songs -- the opening cover of the Byrd's "So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star," 1981's "A Woman in Love" and the blazing boogie of "I Should've Known It," from 2010's under-appreciated Mojo -- the show consisted of either audience-approved hits or a small handful of the most hard-charging tunes from Hypnotic Eye. This Dallas show barely differed from most of the shows on this current tour for the group that started out as a Florida-based roots-rock act named Mudcrutch in 1970. Some previous gigs have featured a mid-set appearance from the revered opener, Steve Winwood, who offered up a jammy, happy set earlier, but that wasn't to be Friday night.
It doesn't take but the most cursory of internet searches to see that even Petty's congenial stage banter was likely the same, syllable for stoned-sounding syllable, from any of the previous stops on this current tour. Regardless, Petty, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Scott Thurston and Steve Ferrone offered up an energetic show. With what might've been the lamest, weakest visual accompaniment for any arena concert ever (a large white sheet draped behind for various light patterns), the music and the vibes of the musicians were left to be the sole attraction.
With the exception of the acoustic "Rebels" from 1985's Southern Accents, adored favorites such as "Into the Great Wide Open," "I Won't Back Down," "Yer So Bad" and "Free Falling," which was given the largest cheer of the night upon its unmistakable introductory strums, were given straight-forward but crisp, lively treatments. The bright ringing of Campbell's lead guitar and the rich tones of Tench's organ filled the arena with a surprising amount of clarity. Newer songs such as "Forgotten Man" and "U Get Me High," kept the pace upbeat as the crowd sang along with gusto.
At some points the group stretched their legs a bit and jammed before closing out a number. Towards the end of the regular set, "Refugee" evolved into a frenzied guitar-battle between Petty and Campbell while Ferrone keenly kept pace on the drums. After closing out the main set with 1989's "Runnin' Down a Dream," the encore began with "You Wreck Me," form 1994's Wildflowers LP. In that song, the mid-section was broken down into a slow, quiet, extended jazzy rhythm, only to come back with bombast before finishing out the night with the anthemic "American Girl," which might be the song that Petty's performed more than any other over the course of his magnificent career in rock.
As long as Petty is, as he describes it in "You Wreck Me," the "boy in the corduroy pants" and we the audience are the "girl at the high school dance," the Heartbreakers and their leader will always be welcome, no matter which songs are chosen to be performed.
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