MANHATTAN, NY—“I think I prefer a more greatest hits concert,” said a stranger seated next to me during Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ May 23 show at the Beacon Theatre. “He’s reaching a little too deep,” he concluded. This guy’s unsolicited review was annoying, but he had a point. Tom Petty’s five-night residency at the Beacon was not for casual fans. Petty started and ended with hits, but he filled the set in between with deep cuts and obscure covers.
Each night’s setlist was different and on this date Petty opened with “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” a Byrds cover, and squeezed in “Don’t Do Me Like That” before launching into lesser known songs like “Something Big,” “Nightwatchman” and “House In The Woods.” And it wasn’t just the tracks that were rare. Petty and the Heartbreakers typically play arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums and have headlined some of the largest events in the world, like the Isle Of Wight Festival in the UK last year and the Super Bowl Halftime show in 2008, so seeing Petty’s guitar up close was a treat for die-hard fans.
Music has a way of restoring youth, and Petty and Heartbreakers Mike Campbell (lead guitar), Benmont Tench (keyboard), Steve Ferrone (drums), Ron Blair (bass) and Scott Thurston (harmonica, guitar) showed they had energy to spare. At 62, Petty lifted his leg to his guitar to hit all the right crescendos. The Heartbreakers smiled like boys who knew they had five nights in town to do whatever they wanted. And for a band that released its first album in 1976, there was a lot of reminiscing to do.
“We last did this song in 1981,” said Petty before playing “Good Enough,” featuring Mike on guitar. “My how time flies.”
Petty described Campbell as his “oldest friend” and “co-captain” but didn’t really need to explain because watching the two men stand shoulder-to-shoulder, hunched over their instruments in mutual admiration said it all. In fact, Petty grinned with appreciation all night.
“I’ve been so lucky to be surrounded by great people,” said Petty about the Heartbreakers.
“A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me)” got a roar of approval from the crowd that made the stranger next to me stop snoring and resume his complaints.
“We wanted to salute one of our favorite groups that meant a lot to us,” said Petty with his Gainesville, Florida drawl. “They weren’t the biggest group in the world. Back in the ‘60s there was a group called The Zombies. We love The Zombies and the song we’re going to do here is not a hit by The Zombies.”
“Aw man!” yelled the killjoy, this time raising his arms in surrender. “They can at least do a hit by The Zombies. They only had two.”
“At the first concert I ever went to, The Zombies were on the show and Mike happened to be at the same concert,” said Petty. “So it was quite an experience. Riding back from the show to go home, I heard this song on the radio and it’s stuck with me ever since.” As the band performed a bluesy cover of “I Want You Back Again,” the stranger was lulled back to sleep.
With their huge repertoire of songs and covers, Petty And The Heartbreakers kept the audience guessing all night. But that only made each choice more rewarding. Songs like “Have Love Will Travel,” “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” (a Traveling Wilburys cover), “Rebels,” “Walls,” “Angel Dream (No. 2),” “Willin’ (a Little Feat cover),” “Mystic Eyes” (a Them cover), and “I Should Have Known It,” were performed before the band returned to anthems like “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream.”
“It means the world to us to see your beautiful faces,” said Petty before encoring with “You Wreck Me.”
“We’re going to leave you where it all began,” said Petty before he and the Heartbreakers launched into the song everyone was waiting for, “American Girl.”
What’s my takeaway from the show? There’s a lot more to Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers than greatest hits. And I’m never giving my extra ticket to someone I don’t know again.