However crusty, my Sunday morning following the mighty Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show in Raleigh likely pales to those of my fellow fans after Saturday nights’ heat-soaked, two-hour concert: There was the young woman lying unconscious, pooled in the lap of her friend, for instance, and the 60-something dude, undoubtedly crestfallen after dancing with Barely Legal only to be discarded before the encore. And there’s the lady who lost her bra, apparently mistaking Tom Petty for Tom Jones. Someone flung the garment in the air during “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Like a poisoned dove, it fluttered and fell onto my notebook. It was too dark to see the tag, but judging by its feel, I’d estimate it to be a 36 or 38 C. If it’s yours, check the lost and found desk.
Petty’s show with the Heartbreakers at the Incredibly Long-Named Pavilion was no different than any of his other performances I’ve seen in myriad cities over the years, offering a powerful jukebox of hits and lesser-known gems: “Listen to Her Heart” and “Free Fallin’” met a rare B-side, the blues grind “Sweet William” and “Refugee,” which I had on a 45 single in the early ’80s. I used to move the turntable’s tone arm so the record would keep playing, theoretically, for an eternity.
Having been around for 30-plus years, sold more than 50 million records and even having played the Super Bowl’s half-time show this year, it seems that Petty and the Heartbreakers could simply phone it in live. People would be satisfied just to see Petty smile and guitarist Mike Campbell twist through familiar riffs. Yet the reason Petty and the Heartbreakers can play to full houses is because they don’t merely imitate the recorded arrangements, but rather, re-contour them. The thick, cumulus chords of “Saving Grace” built like a thunderhead, breaking into extended organ and guitar solos. “Break Down” pulsed between bombast and a hush. On that quieter note, the band launched “Learning to Fly” with only an acoustic guitar and shaker then tenderly added bass and piano.
The contrast of light and darkand the shades of gray in betweenencapsulates Petty’s music and its enduring, timeless appeal. A master craftsman, he pens songs that capture the very American concept of possibility: of places to run to, of a little more life somewhere else. But darkness always lurks: One day, she’s an American Girl out in the great big world; the next, she’s in Indianapolis standing on a hotel balcony in her underwear.
During those times we wonder, as Petty half-sang in a tingling version of Them’s “Mystic Eyes”: “Wouldn’t it be great if for one moment everything would be all right?”
It would be, and last night it was. Gas is $4 a gallon, yet 18,000 of us willingly ponied up $30 to $100 to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. We sang along with every word. Some of us apparently disrobed. The music made us forget, for just a little while, that payback always waits in the wings.