Tom Petty pulls strings of nostalgia at Greek Theatre

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Audrey McNamara /Senior Staff

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Tom Petty knows what he’s doing.

At Petty and the Heartbreakers’ performance at the Greek Theatre on Tuesday — one of three sold-out shows as part of the group’s 40th-anniversary tour — the group brought its decades’ worth of showmanship to the Greek in a smooth, jubilant performance of a well-oiled musical machine.

In what is being billed as Petty’s last time in the bay, he and the Heartbreakers gave a give-it-your-all performance of excellent craftsmanship. Although each of the band members —  including guitarist Mike Campbell, drummer Steve Ferrone, bassist Ron Blair and keyboardist Benmont Trench — is well into their 60s, age didn’t stop them all from delivering an intense and nonstop set.

After taking the stage at 8:20 p.m., nearly exactly on schedule, Petty came clad in a long black coat, denim shirt and vest and aviator sunglasses that projected the well-honed rockabilly gravitas he’s been exuding since the late ‘70s. With every hair of his signature blond coif in place, Petty welcomed the crowd with a nod to the vibes: “Can you feel that mojo?” The crowd members certainly did, rising to their feet and remaining there for nearly the entire show.

The nearly 2-hour-long set that followed featured the classics of Petty and the Heartbreakers’ own mojo, spanning albums from both Petty’s solo career and the band’s collective discography.

“We’re gonna start with the first song from our first album,” Petty yelled to the exuberant crowd. “This is one great big vinyl record, we’re gonna drop the needle wherever we want to.”

And drop the needle they did, though the record itself kept changing. The group only played one song — Forgotten Man, from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye — outside of its repertoire of pre-2000s classics, which by and large fit with the expectations of the crowd. The full house cheered with each launch into the first notes of every classic, singing along to standards such as “Free Fallin’,” “It’s Good to be King” and, in the emotional peak of the evening, “Learning to Fly.”

Petty was perfectly in tune with the crowd throughout the night, with every gesture, clap and nod in sync to maximize audience participation. Petty, who at 66 is still spry, danced around the stage, waved — and threw — maracas, and he timed his every move impeccably with his bandmates.

This back-and-forth between Petty and his bandmates was a highlight of the show, a reflection of their years of work together. While Petty was undeniably the centerpiece (see: Petty solo on nearly every Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album cover), every member was given a moment in the spotlight, with a camera zooming in on their face during a solo or a nod from Petty as he would step back to let them each do their thing. Campbell in particular was given a notable guitar line toward the end of the show, grinning and tossing picks to the audience at its end.  

The band’s classic rock sounds worked well — while nothing was exactly innovative, every tune was recognizable, nearly to a T of the recorded versions. Petty and his band members had great chemistry musically as well, cueing one another in and playing off each other, drum-to-guitar or vocals-to-keyboard.

Petty took a beat to introduce all the band members one by one, with anecdotes and epithets about each of his colleagues, and evidently, friends.

“We knew each other way back in Florida,” Petty waxed about bass player Blair. “We don’t leave home without him.” This affectionate attitude carried through to the band’s performance and permeated into the feeling of nostalgia present in each song and over the crowd.

Everything about the show spoke to the band’s coherence, experience and finesse. Even if this is the Heartbreakers’ last turn in the bay, they will leave having given an impressive set of performances playing both to the strength of their sing-along repertoire and reflecting the band’s collective commitment to having a good time together.

Camryn Bell is an assistant night editor. Contact her at at [email protected].