It’s good to be king, as the old song goes, but I’m not so sure I’d want to be Tom Petty. I mean, I’d be Petty for sure if it meant I could be in a band with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne (as he was with the Traveling Wilburys). But if I had the chance to be him for his 40th anniversary concert tour this summer, I’d probably decline.
Decisions are hard, and I can’t even imagine how hard it was for Petty to pick the songs he’d play on this tour. He has no new album to promote, so he can’t fall back on picking three or four songs off a new one. And there’s no milestone album anniversary where he can just play the whole thing, like U2 is doing with the 30-year-old “Joshua Tree” album. (Breaking news: A Sept. 8 Minneapolis show has been added to the U2 tour.)
I’m a little puzzled, actually, that Petty is calling this a 40th anniversary tour, because he and the Heartbreakers released their first album in 1976. For me, anyway, it’s the 38th anniversary tour, since I saw him for the first time in 1979, and I saw him three more times in the next seven years.
But how does he decide on a set list, with 13 studio albums with the Heartbreakers, three solo albums and two with Mudcrutch?
My wife got tickets for Saturday’s show at the Xcel Center for Christmas, and I would catch my breath every time I remembered I had that concert to look forward to. It helped keep me going through the winter, and as the date approached I stared listening to my Petty records.
I made a playlist for the drive up, leaning heavily on the first five albums that I had listened to so much in college. By the time we got to St. Paul, I was back in 1979 in my mind, remembering the thrill of that first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show, when the band was still playing theaters instead of arenas. I saw that first show in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, practically next door to the Xcel Center, and I had high hopes that TP would take me back there Saturday night.
When Petty kicked off the show with “Rockin’ Around With You,” the first song off the first album, I thought I was in for a hard rockin’ night. Introducing the song, he said he was going to “drop the needle” on songs throughout the past four decades. He did touch on songs from throughout his career, but of the 19 songs he and the band played, eight were from the 1990s and only five of them were recorded before the last Tom Petty concert I saw in 1987.
He ended the show with a couple rockers for an encore, starting with “You Wreck Me” and ending with the last song off his first album, “American Girl,” a cool way to bookend the show. These were the kind of songs I was hoping I’d hear the whole night, but instead Petty went with the mid-tempo, folkie pop-rock hits he has been known for since “Full Moon Fever,” including five from his second solo album, “Wildflowers.”
Did I sing along with the rest of the arena on “Free Fallin’” and “Learning to Fly” and “Yer So Bad” and “I Won’t Back Down”? Oh, heck yeah. But I would have loved to hear more than “Refugee” from “Damn the Torpedoes” — still my favorite Petty album — and he didn’t play anything from “You’re Gonna Get It,” his second album and the first of his albums that I bought, reeled in after I heard “Listen to Her Heart” on the radio. And there was only one from “Long After Dark” and none from “Hard Promises,” the follow-up to “Damn the Torpedoes.”
Petty and the Heartbreakers are all past retirement age for normal mortals, and maybe Petty has mellowed in the 30 years since I last saw the band play. They proved Saturday night they can still rock, and all in all it was still a great show, and the set list was probably perfect for most of the people in the crowd. Maybe there comes a time when it’s OK that one of your favorite bands does not kick out the rock jams all night long like they used to.
Rock on …