On Thursday night at the Hollywood Bowl, Tom Petty, reflecting on the 40th anniversary of his time with the Heartbreakers, told the story of how he first met his lifelong lead guitarist Mike Campbell.
Around 1970, some guy Petty barely knew gave him a lift to a house in a sketchy part of their hometown of Gainesville, Fla., to meet the aspirant musician. A pair of joints were promised as payment to the driver — but only if they smoked one on the way, Petty added.
After seeing the house, the guy with the car got spooked and drove off, leaving Petty inside. But after jamming on "Johnny B. Goode" with the young guitarist, Petty told him, "You're gonna be in my band forever."
The band became Mudcrutch, which soon transitioned in Los Angeles into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. And four decades later, Petty relived that stoned, life-changing trip to the tough side of the tracks at the first of three nights at the Bowl.
For titans of the classic rock era, there's never been more interest in producing lavish, career-spanning gigs for veteran artists and their well-heeled fans. Desert Trip, Classic West — each festival promised definitive sets from rock's legendary lions in winter.
Petty looked back on Thursday, for sure. But he and the Heartbreakers also made the case that they should be considered the most invigorated almost-original-lineup classic rock act touring today. Thursday's set was a flawless collection of hits from one of the great writers of rock, backed by a band with a near-telepathic relationship to its singer.
Petty has already played L.A. on this 40th anniversary touring cycle with the Heartbreakers. The band headlined Arroyo Seco Weekend, a congenial new festival just outside the Rose Bowl, back in June. That fest seemed geared at harried post-hipster parents who wanted to see some tasteful rock, down a few craft IPAs and get home before the babysitter charged time-and-a-half.
But Petty belonged at the Bowl.
Not just because his wide-open chords and the implacable longing of the lyrics sat right in with the cool canyon air. But because he and the band had, across 40 years, so many (and such varied) hits that even lifelong fans were knocked back by the wealth of material.
It's almost imposing to even parse the set list. "Mary Jane's Last Dance," "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Fallin'," obviously. Petty got through those in the first half-hour.
"American Girl," "Refugee" and "Yer So Bad" ripped up the latter half of the set. In between, a gorgeous and melancholic "Wildflowers" (his backing singers the Webb Sisters adding heavenly harmonies) and a perfectly-chosen rarity, 1996's "Walls."
"I don't usually take requests, but this one's from me, so …" Petty joked, and we should all be glad he took it.
Petty and the Heartbreakers have had an unusual career arc, hitting creative strides at different points in their careers long after most bands have burned out. From their scrappy early '70s beginnings, late-decade commercial success and Petty's 1989 solo-with-some-Heartbreakers "Full Moon Fever," all the way up to to his Traveling Wilburys supergroup, '90s popular resurgence and latest LP "Hypnotic Eye."
Maybe that's why there's no downtime in the Petty catalog — every few years, he got a fresh start without changing the core of his writing gifts.
And to this day, the Heartbreakers remain a top-five backing band in the history of classic rock, and probably close to the top of even that list. The combination of Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench beautifully colored in the scenes Petty set in his lyrics; bassist Ron Blair gave the whole combo a swing and kick that most late-career bands struggle to keep.
Desert Trip was a once-in-a-lifetime concert; Classic West at Dodger Stadium was a golden-hour L.A. moment. Springsteen on Broadway will probably be stunning.
But 40 years on, for that original '70s feeling of sparking a few joints, climbing in a car with a stranger and seeing where rock 'n' roll can take you, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were like nothing else.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Lucinda Williams
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $49-$226 (subject to change)
For breaking music news, follow @augustbrown on Twitter.