Tom Petty is no newcomer to the Hollywood Bowl. He’s a frequent visitor, seeming to find both comfort and inspiration in its vast open-air setting, a space well-suited to his epic tales of young antiheroes and world-weary survivors.
The power of those songs about rebellion and possibility, the joy and confusion of young boy-girl confrontations -- many of which date back to the ‘70s -- hasn’t diminished with age, something the Heartbreakers ably demonstrated during a two-hour performance Wednesday night.
The overwhelming emphasis at the Bowl was on the vast catalog of hits Petty’s created these last three decades. But everything in the Heartbreakers’ delivery suggested a band of contemporary musicians who believe in the salvation of classic rock music, playing timeless songs full of drama and defiance and understated idealism.
Even if Petty spent much of the night looking back, it was with a journeyman’s confidence, not nostalgia. While songs from his most recent albums (2006’s “Highway Companion,” 2002’s “The Last DJ”) went missing from the set list, the band approached each of the classics as something fresh to stretch out and mine for real emotion, finding new energy in songs from “I Won’t Back Down” right up until the night’s final moments of “American Girl,” a signature single from the group’s 1976 debut.
It is tough to ignore a history as rich as the one Petty has created with the Heartbreakers. He’s managed to hold on to two of the finest musicians of his generation: keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. Both are coveted guest players on recordings by other major acts, but it’s with Petty that they shine the brightest -- from Tench’s freewheelin’ organ on “Listen to Her Heart” to Campbell’s skittish slide work at the Bowl on “Free Fallin’ ” while Petty strummed an acoustic 12-string.
Campbell’s elegant leads often would erupt mid-song like bolts of lightning or could unfold casually in languid, evocative patterns that carried real emotional weight. The raw, chunky riffs and harmonica blare of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” suggested the influence of Neil Young’s hardest-rocking recordings. And “Even the Losers” was the classic Petty sound, wailing in the face of disappointment.
Petty happily performed the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line,” his band filling in on the voices of Orbison, Harrison, Dylan and Lynne as Petty strummed the joyous, jangly tune. Among the lesser-known songs was the brooding blues of “Sweet William,” a track released originally a decade earlier on a European EP, unremarkable but still a nice refreshing shift from the hit parade.
The band was joined briefly by support act and classic rock icon Steve Winwood, who tapped into his own history by performing lead guitar and singing Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and standing behind Tench’s organ to sing the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’,” as Campbell fired off sparks of color and wah-wah.
Petty was born a Southerner, but he’s been very much a local artist since arriving from Gainesville, Fla., to become a rock star in the early ‘70s. He’s found great material here, including the scenes of L.A. suburbia of “Free Fallin’.”
In recent years, he’s sometimes threatened to retire from touring completely, suggesting that some series of upcoming concerts might be his last. But he’s certainly still rock- ing at full power. On Wed- nesday, there was nothing to suggest that Petty has any plans of slowing down or giving up.