Last night, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers brought their 40th anniversary tour to New York for the first time. After playing an arena in New Jersey last month, they scaled it back somewhat for this two-night stand, playing what is nominally a tennis stadium in Queens, but is functionally a much smaller space than a cavernous arena. And even though Petty and his band spent the night looking out at a packed sea of people, the setting allowed for a semi-intimate atmosphere as far as big rock shows go, with Petty ambling onstage right at 8PM — Forest Hills Stadium has a hard curfew given some of its suburban-leaning surroundings — and saying a few words to the crowd before casually introducing the band’s first song: “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first song on the first album they ever released.
During that opener, old footage of the Heartbreakers on ’70s TV was interspersed with the live camera feed of them onstage in the moment. But despite that and a few other instances, Petty didn’t delve as deeply into nostalgia as you might guess from something billed as an anniversary tour with four decades’ worth of music and life experience holding it up. And that was fitting, considering that it’s sort of strange to imagine Petty as an elder statesman to this extent. Obviously his original sound was steeped in the aesthetics of the late ’70s, and sure, he has a string of massive hits that are permanently woven into the atmosphere. But each time Petty talked in-between songs, still in that reedy drawl, it was a reminder that he’s always kinda felt like classic rock’s stoner dude cousin off to the side, the Floridian guy who wound up defining a heartland rock movement and releasing a slew of classic albums and songs, but still feels halfway-outside of most major classic rock narratives or scenes.
Of course, now he’s a classic rock old stoner dude uncle, hanging around adjacent to more grandparental figures from the ’60s and earlier ’70s, but an elder nonetheless. Somehow, Petty will be 67 years old in October. He’s one of those guys you just don’t think of getting up there in the years yet. His voice is remarkably well-preserved. His presence is still all laidback affability, with him introducing old favorites as well as big hits with a humility that bordered on self-deprecation of the “Wow, I’m glad you guys know that one!” genre.
And, well, there were a lot of hits. As much as the Heartbreakers presented themselves as road warrior troubadours, just plugging away and doing their thing, the setlist was a reminder of how many monumental songs they have to their, or to Petty’s, name. After “Rockin’ Around (With You)” came “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” back to back, and before long he paired “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin'” too — both songs that could easily have closed the whole show with their gigantic sing-alongs, placed within the first 45 minutes instead.
Along the way, he also found room for some deeper cuts, like a pretty revelatory rendition of “Swingin,'” a track from the 1999 release Echo that came across like a lost classic from his ’80s work when placed near his big hits. This first stretch of the show culminated in one of the highest points of the evening — a huge reading of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” that managed to be a trippy interlude amidst big pop singles at the same time that it was a cooing singalong, all before it erupted into its frantic rock outro, dropping us into the mid-set Wildflowers break. Before that comparatively restrained section of the show, Petty introduced the band, taking time to underline that 40th anniversary business and self-mythologize just a bit. He talked about trying to find Gainesville’s best bassist, Ron Blair, and having to head out to LA to do so. He talked about the first time he met guitarist Mike Campbell, from an ad that provided an address but no phone number; Petty told Campbell that he’d be in Petty’s band forever. And he talked about knowing Benmont Tench since they were children, when he assumed everyone could play piano the way Tench did. The whole thing was like a lower-key version of what Springsteen does onstage with the E Street Band — a frontman who became larger than life, but backed by characters who are as crucial to his sound and life as anything else, connections that went all the way back to childhood and adolescence and somehow wound up here 40 (or more) years later.
By the end of the show, it was an all-business rush to beat the curfew and squeeze in all the songs that got them there in the first place. (Unfortunately, “You Wreck Me” had to get cut from the encore.) “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” closed the main set, before the band snuck back onstage for a quick run-through of “American Girl” to close the whole thing. Like Springsteen before him, Petty’s been reclaimed as an indie luminary in recent years. But along the way, the Heartbreakers also yielded retro-leaning ’90s radio-rock like the Wallflowers. Their inherent rootsiness made them a viable option for the festival circuit, sometimes alongside jam bands, earlier than some of their contemporaries. With as many major songs as Petty has, it should be clear where he lives, exactly. While he may not have been part of a movement in the way some of his forebears were, 40 years later, with this collection of songs and the same lopsided grin of an attitude, Petty proved he still occupies his own little corner of the rock universe.