My friend and I coined a term for when musicians pretty much only play the hits in concert: “to Petty it.”
Well, we’ll have to brainstorm a new namesake for that verb. At the St. Paul stop of their 40th Anniversary Tour Saturday night, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers didn't quite hit the crowd with an unexpected b-side or unreleased track like Springsteen or Pearl Jam might. But the 66-year-old sure didn't Petty it.
Instead, the sold-out Xcel Energy Center crowd was treated to everything from Wildflowers deep cuts and bluesy latter-day numbers to classics like “American Girl” and “Learning to Fly.” Both casual fans and diehards went home with a spring in their step.
The math is pretty dubious when it comes to the name of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ latest North American jaunt. If you start the clock at their 1976 self-titled debut, it’s been 41 years. If you consider that that album was recorded over a two-year period -- well, then you just realize that this band has, quite sneakily, been around a really long fucking time.
Then again, after kicking off the birthday celebration with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first track off that initial LP, the band quickly dove into the stoner suite of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” The lower bowl was awash in the scent of spliff by the former’s second verse and no one could tell 40 from 43, anyway.
A few songs later, Petty kept the crowd on its feet by busting out his two biggest smashes, “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’,” back-to-back. Since both were from 1989’s Full Moon Fever, the album Petty ditched the Heartbreakers for to temporarily go solo, this was like throwing a couple snapshots of Petty with a drunken one-night-stand partner into his birthday party slideshow, but the band handled things gracefully.
Key to the presentation of those two selections were the Webb Sisters, an accomplished English duo hired on to the tour for backing vocals. In fact, Charley and Hattie Webb underscored Petty’s pristine pop sensibilities throughout the night, nailing the harmonies in “Yer So Bad” and becoming the next best thing to Stevie Nicks on “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
The five times Platinum Full Moon Fever received plenty of attention Saturday, but it was 1994’s Wildflowers that bloomed into the star of the show. Petty spoke last year of wanting to take a full-album Wildflowers tour on the road to coincide with its yet-to-be-released reissue, but that idea seems to have shrunk into a three-song segment in the middle of the current setlist. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell and his frontman jammed gloriously on “It’s Good to Be King” for nigh on 10 minutes, while “Crawling Back to You” and the title track (both seldom played live prior to the current tour) were performed with all of the beautiful delicacy they’re given on record. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and a rousing take on “You Wreck Me” in the encore brought the album’s song count to five for the night.
The fact that Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers accounted for nine of the concert’s 19 numbers meant that several worthy albums went completely ignored. For instance,1977’s You’re Gonna Get It! (early hit “Listen to Her Heart” was a surprising exclusion) and 1981’s Hard Promises (“The Waiting,” “A Woman in Love”) absolutely should have been represented on a tour meant to emphasize both the commercial and creative highlights of Petty’s career. Furthermore, playing just a single cut off Damn the Torpedoes (the admittedly rousing “Refugee”) is a damnable offense.
I refuse be petty, though. “You Got Lucky” from 1982 and “Walls” from 1996 both came off records that Petty has snubbed in concert for decades before this year -- the vastly underrated Long After Dark and his soundtrack for She’s the One, respectively. Petty’s more recent releases were also thrown a bone, with 2010’s “I Should Have Known It” and 2014’s “Forgotten Man” reminding audience members that he’s made music this millennium, too.
There might not be any more of those new tunes in the future -- Petty has suggested that his band’s 40th Anniversary Tour could be its last. What’s more likely is that this trek firmly entrenches he and his band into complete nostalgia act territory (which, let’s be honest, they’ve been flirting heavily with for some time) for as long as they can rock around with their audience.
As Petty sang at the beginning of the night, he digs that -- and for 16,000 screaming Minnesotans, the feeling was mutual.
See our photo slideshow of Petty & Co. rocking Xcel here
The Opener: Joe Walsh played a 10-song setlist packed with hits from across his five-decade career, including James Gang's "Funk #49," solo smashes "Rocky Mountain Way" and "Life's Been Good," and the Eagles' "Take It to the Limit," dedicated to dearly-departed bandmate Glenn Frey.
Rockin’ Around (With You)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
You Don’t Know How It Feels
You Got Lucky
I Won’t Back Down
Don’t Come Around Here No More
It’s Good to Be King
Crawling Back to You
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
You Wreck Me