Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
With Joe Walsh
American Airlines Center, Dallas
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Tom Petty seems bored. After spending the past couple years playing with his old band, Mudcrutch, he's back on the road for the 40th anniversary of the one that made him famous, the Heartbreakers. It's a tour that he says might be "the last big one" he does. And so it was that, as Petty visited American Airlines Center on Saturday night for the second stop of the tour, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was at his most mercurial.
Right from the start, Petty eschewed playing "as many of the hits as possible" (as he promised the crowd he would try to do) by playing a deep cut, "Rockin' Around (With You)." Given the circumstances, it was an appropriate pick, being the first song from the Heartbreakers' first album. The night didn't start with a bang, as it failed to register a response with the nearly 20,000 people in attendance.
After that awkward start, the next couple songs, "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "You Don't Know How It Feels," at least hit the right note with the fans, especially with their references to lighting up a joint. But neither one exactly rocked. In fact, Petty didn't really rock that hard for most of the night in Dallas. Mostly he just chugged along, save for the last four songs of the night when the band finally tightened up and played with some urgency.
You can't necessarily blame the guy if he is bored. His set lists have largely been dictated by his diamond-selling Greatest Hits for the past quarter century, and many of those songs — tight, formulaic pop — don't lend themselves to reinvention. Petty's most recent work with the Heartbreakers, including their last tour four years ago that focused on smaller theaters, suggests the routine has gotten stale. His preference had been to do another theater tour focused on 1994's Wildflowers, but that got put on hold for the 40th anniversary.
Then again, being a rock star has never seemed like it was all it was cracked up to be for Petty. The characters in his songs haven't so much been hard luck people as they have been perpetually wronged (and two of his great hard-luck anthems, "The Waiting" and "Even the Losers," were absent Saturday). Over the years that's turned into a crotchety streak, culminating in that most self-indulgent of rock star tropes: a concept album about the evils of the music biz, 2002's The Last DJ. Those feelings haven't dulled with age, either, as the most recent of the songs on the set list, "Forgotten Man," made clear.
Yet Petty has had things pretty damn good. Despite never having a No. 1 single (only two have even cracked the top 10) and only earning his first No. 1 album in 2014 with Hypnotic Eye, he's one of the top-selling artists of all-time, a testament to the lucrative nature of being an AOR artist with a lot of FM radio staples. But Petty's real longevity stems from his celebrity as one of MTV's first video stars, which fits his success into a narrower window still — and makes his continued crankiness feel less like rock star petulance than baby boomer entitlement.
Not that that bothers his fans. The middle-of-the-road alienation in Petty's music makes him relatable to the public, who practically screamed along to the chorus of "I Won't Back Down" at AAC. Once upon a time, that irascibility was mistaken for a blue-collar empathy and saw him grouped in with such men of the people as Bruce Springsteen. But his true perspective is probably (or has at least become) closest to a song like "It's Good to Be King," which was the centerpiece of the set and, at heart, is an ode to being rich, famous and isolated from the world. That, too, sits fine with his fans, who see in Petty not only a reflection of their own (possibly unfulfilled) aspirations but also his dissatisfaction with that success.
That's likely why so many fans consider Wildflowers, which "It's Good to Be King" is on, to be Petty's masterpiece, even though it lacks most of the traits — compact power-pop hooks and jangling, 12-string guitars — that made him a star in the first place. That album's muddy, meandering jams have become the template for his post-Greatest Hits career, most of which is the territory of hardcore fans only but informed the lethargic vibe of the show on Saturday just the same.
In an ironic but revealing twist, Wildflowers and Full Moon Fever accounted for roughly half the setlist on Saturday night, despite the fact that both records are billed as solo Petty efforts rather than Heartbreakers ones. Meanwhile the Heartbreakers' hits, for which this tour is supposed to be a celebration, were conspicuously few and far between, accounting for only six of the 19 songs. Damn the Torpedoes, Petty's actual masterpiece, only got one song, "Refugee" — but it was also easily one of the most electric of the night.
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Maybe, in the end, Petty really is bored with the Heartbreakers' hits. Maybe he's tired of his deeper cuts not getting equal attention to the hits. Or maybe he'd rather just keep playing Mudcrutch songs and the Wildflowers album. But if this is really the last stadium tour for the Heartbreakers — and Petty's many thank you's throughout the night had an air of finality about them — then Saturday's show didn't feel like a very fitting send off.
Rockin' Around (With You)
Mary Jane's Last Dance
You Don't Know How It Feels
You Got Lucky
I Won't Back Down
Don't Come Around Here No More
It's Good to Be King
Time to Move On
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin' Down a Dream
You Wreck Me