The classic rockers celebrate 40 years as a band with a hits-heavy set
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers started, appropriately, at the beginning, kicking off a two-hour performance at a crowded Schottenstein Center on Wednesday with “Rockin' Around (With You),” the boogieing opening salvo off the band's self-titled 1976 debut.
This string of dates, which Petty has suggested might be the band’s last cross-country go-round, coincides with the Heartbreaker’s 40th anniversary. But aside from select deeper cuts — Petty & Co. dusted off the synth-heavy “You Got Lucky” off their 1982 album Long After Dark — the musicians eschewed rummaging through the attic for rarities, instead turning out a hits-heavy set filled with fan favorites such as “Refugee,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Learning to Fly.”
Petty, wearing dark jeans and a pinstriped button-up beneath a black vest and gray suit jacket, exuded an eternally chill vibe that would make even Matthew McConaughey appear tense in comparison. His bandmates, who collectively could have passed for a cadre of actors waiting to audition for the “Deadwood” film (porkpie hats, three-quarter length leather jackets, assorted interesting facial hair), followed this laid-back lead early on, easing into timeless, cannabis-scented classic rockers such as “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” where Petty drawled lines about “rolling another joint,” which might help explain why he wore sunglasses for the duration of the show.
Occasionally the modern era intervened. When the musicians launched into “Forgotten Man,” off the 2014 album Hypnotic Eye, a video screen flashed images of faceless executives awash in hundred-dollar bills and silhouettes of homeless citizens wrapped in blankets, helping the song play like a commentary on social and economic policies that turn blue-collar workers into an overlooked class. Otherwise, tunes felt less connected to time or place. Even “Yer So Bad,” with its lines about a “world gone mad,” played more like it was rescued from a time capsule than a reflection of current headlines.
Against a minimalist backdrop — the stage was bare aside from the rafters strung with dozens of glowing orbs that looked as though they could have been smuggled in from Saudi Arabia — Petty and the five-piece Heartbreakers crew, augmented by two backup vocalists, ping-ponged between pretty, straightforward numbers (“Wildflowers,” the soaring “Free Fallin’”) and tunes that broke off into extended freeform jams. On “It’s Good to Be King,” for one, Petty and longtime guitarist Mike Campbell refused to abdicate the throne, locking into an instrumental conversation where their guitars alternately whispered, barked and howled as the song built to a rocking crescendo. It’s an exploratory spirit that even bled into mellower cuts like “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” which closed with Petty walking to the edge of the stage to let his guitar wander.
Though the music remained genial much of the evening — partially a byproduct of Petty’s chill vocal style (even when he crooned about standing his ground on “I Won’t Back Down” it sounded more like a suggestion than a statement) — there were occasions the players threw haymakers.
On the ominous “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” Petty sneered the chorus like an old curmudgeon ushering kids off his lawn. “I Should Have Known It,” a bluesy barnburner, found Petty declaring “it’s the last time you’re gonna hurt me” as guitars, keys and drums crashed around him, as if to challenge his words.
“Runnin’ Down a Dream,” meanwhile, with its instantly recognizable, cascading guitar riff, featured a thrilling six-string duel between Petty and Campbell, who stood 20 paces apart like Western gunslingers locked in a showdown, exchanging clawed riffs. If this was indeed a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-esque last stand, well, what a way to go out.