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Petty and the Heartbreakers get better with age

TD Bank, Boston, July 20, 2017

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

For a 40th anniversary run, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers got off to a bit of a curious start. Instead of picking one of the better known songs from the group's 1976 self-titled debut, Petty and friends opted for "Rockin' Around (With You)." A bit disjointed musically, it was almost out of place for what would transpire over the next few hours.

That would be meat-and-potatoes American rock, sometimes on the rootsy side.

While something of a retrospective (they played but one song apiece from "Damn the Torpedoes," "Mojo" and Hypnotic Eye"), the emphasis was clearly on the hits.

In the case of the headliners, that meant a treasure trove of great material, such as the tough as nails "I Won't Back Down" going right into "Free Fallin'." It didn't seem to matter what the material was - whether "Refugee" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" to close out the regular set or mid-set gems "It's Good to Be King" and "Crawling Back to You" - Petty and the Heartbreakers didn't sound like they were especially long in the tooth.

No, there was a definite freshness to the singing and delivery. Petty's voice seemingly has not changed over time. There's a warmth to it, but he also could turn it up a notch.

Petty has always enjoyed a twangy vocal delivery, even though he left his native Gainesville, Fla. about four decades ago. He also was ably helped by British sisters Charley and Hattie Webb, who provided far more than window dressing during the course of the night.

The Hearbtbreakers remain one immensely superb band. When you have folks like guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Stephen Ferrone (he was considered the newbie by Petty since he's only been a Heartbreaker since 1994) and keyboard ace Benmont Tench, it's easy to understand why. Petty labeled Ferrone of the best rock drummers, and he seemed to be correct in his assessment. Ferrone anchored song after song, setting the beat with confidence, but never showboating.

Campbell could be muscular in his playing, but he, too, wasn't a stage hog. Lots of substantive guitar licks emanated form his guitars (and Petty was able to demonstrate some of his skill as well).

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers may be 40 years in, but this was never a show of punching the clock. Petty had an awe shucks kind of demeanor with a generous bunch of "Thank you very much" comments to the crowd, almost surprised that the crowd (albeit graying) is with them after all these years.

Yet, that really should not have been the case given the breath and depth of the musicianship and song craft. Rockin' around with Petty and the Heartbreakers was pure joy.

Forty years ago, opening act Peter Wolf fronted J. Geils, headlining a set at the Cape Cod Coliseum with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opening. Times may have changed, but at 71, Wolf seemingly hasn't. He can sing. He can dance. He can engage in his free wheeling style.

The ultra lithe Wolf was entertaining in mixing up his own material with some J. Geils hits, like "Must Have Got Lost," "Start All Over Again," the reggaeish "Give It to Me" and the fast-paced closing "Lookin' for a Love," also made famous by J. Geils.

Wolf, who has gone more rootsy in recent years, wasn't afraid to trot out his own material, with "Wastin' Time" a standout. So was his band, including guitar aces Duke Levine and Kevin Barry. These guys are used to playing far smaller venues, but they easily filled the arena.

Give Petty credit for having Wolf open the show. It may have been a role reversal from decades ago, but both opener and headliner seem to grow better with age.