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.”
Many of the performances and highlights of Tom Petty’s career.(Handout)
Rock and roll legend Tom Petty is photographed in the studio of his L.A. area home.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Before he created the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty played in the band Mudcrutch. From left are Mudcrutch members Mike Campbell, Petty, Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh in December 1974.( Jim McCrary / Redferns / Getty)
Tom Petty performs at the Inglewood Forum on Jan. 20, 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty tries to get the crowd involved at a November 1979 performance in New York.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty performs with Stevie Nicks, left, at the Forum in 1981.(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Time)
Tom Petty plays in Santa Monica on June 7, 1978.(Marianna Diamos / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty at his home on April 28, 1985.(Iris Schneider/Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty on stage for a soundcheck in Burbank during a May 1987 tour.(Ellen Jascol / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty in concert in July 1979 in Santa Cruz.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty at a Santa Cruz concert in July 1979.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Irvine on Aug. 14, 2005.(Karl Walter / Getty Images)
Tom Petty at a 1977 concert.(Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty holds up the key to the city of Gainesville, Fla., he received from Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan in 2006. From left are drummer Steve Ferrone, guitarist Scott Thurston, Petty and bassist Ron Blair.(Tracy Wilcox / Associated Press)
Tom Petty is interviewed in 1996.(Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty on April 26, 1977.(Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty, third from the left, touches the star he and his band, the Heartbreakers received on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 28, 1999.(Vince Bucci / AFP/Getty Images / )
Tom Petty, second from right, also played in the short-lived supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Clockwise from top left, are Jeff Lynne, Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison in 1988.(Neal Preston / Wilbury Records)
Tom Petty performs during a sold-out concert at the Inglewood Forum on Jan. 20, 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty performs in Copenhagen in September 1987.(Jan Persson / Redferns / Getty Images)
Mike Campbell, left, Tom Petty, Stan Lynch, Benmont Tench and Howie Epstein of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Nov. 28, 1993.(Caroline Greyshock / Los Angeles Times)
From left, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, producer Rick Rubin and Marty Stuart work in a recording studio in Van Nuys in 1996.(Kevin Estrada / Retna )
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at Pine Knob Music Theater in Clarkston, Mich., on June 18, 1999.(Paul Warner / Associated Press)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the SFX Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in San Antonio on May 19, 2001.(Tom Reel / San Antonio Express-News / Associated Press)
Mike Campbell, left, Tom Petty and Tom Leadon of Mudcrutch perform at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on May 1, 2008.(Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images)
Tom Petty performs during the Hangout Music Festival on May 18, 2013, in Gulf Shores, Ala.(Skip Bolen / WireImage/Getty Images)
Tom Petty in the studio of his L.A.-area home on June 30, 2014.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Members of Mudcrutch, from left, Benmont Tench, Mike Campbell, Randall Marsh, Tom Leadon and Tom Petty at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank on April 7, 2016.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play the Arroyo Seco Weekend festival in Pasadena on June 24, 2017.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty at his home in Malibu on Sept. 27, 2017.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty at his Malibu home on Sept. 27, 2017.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers play the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 21, 2017.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 21, 2017.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
“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)
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