You knew you were in the company of proud rock geeks from the first notes of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' show Tuesday at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The band dived headlong into the Byrds' "So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star," whose recipe for rock success seems to have provided a template for the group's extended career.
Petty and his cohorts cemented that impression later, briefly detouring from their own estimable songbook for another cover, serving up "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" and dedicating it not to the group that earned the biggest hit with it (the Monkees) but to the one that recorded it first, as an homage to the namesake member of Paul Revere & the Raiders, who died last week at 76.
One of the most endearing qualities that Petty and founding members guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Ron Blair have exuded is accessibility. They've always come across as the ingratiating guys down your street who bashed away in their garage doing their best to be the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Byrds or any number of other musical heroes.
In chasing that dream, of course, Petty and the Heartbreakers joined the ranks of rock's elite, yet still seem better described as rock fans than rock stars as the years have rolled by.
That's been built not on any sincere form of flattery but on the strength of songwriting, mostly by Petty and Campbell, that's often been the equal of rock's best writers.
That gift was clearly evident through a nearly two-hour performance filled with contemporary rock classics such as "Refugee," "American Girl," "I Won't Back Down," "Free Fallin'" and "Runnin' Down a Dream" supplemented by a healthy sprinkling of strong new songs from the band's latest album, "Hypnotic Eye."
There's always been an unyielding strain of resolute optimism running through Petty's music even at its most dejected and jaundiced. Like Bruce Springsteen, Petty is a charter member of the Church of Rock 'n' Roll Redemption, holding firmly to a belief that liberating music can overcome the most daunting challenges life has to offer.
That came out in the title track from 1991's "Into the Great Wide Open," with its heartening tale of a young couple that comes to Hollywood in pursuit of their dreams — much as Petty and the other musicians who would become the Heartbreakers did when they relocated from Florida to L.A. in the 1970s.
Petty used it to follow the lead-off track from "Hypnotic Eye," "American Dream Plan B," another story of an idealist following his heart despite a changing reality more than two decades down the line that puts the very notion of success in question:
My mama so sad
Daddy's just mad
'Cause I ain't gonna have the chance he had
My success is anybody's guess
But like a fool, I'm bettin' on happiness
As he put it in "I Won't Back Down" back in 1989, "I'll keep this world from dragging me down/Gonna stand my ground, and I won't back down."
Of course, standing one's ground is a little easier with the support of the musical friends he's surrounded himself with for most of his life. He and Campbell delivered the equivalent of Guitar Geek Porn with their parade of knockout instruments, from the 12-string Rickenbacker that formed a crucial part of the band's early sound to grinding Gibson electrics, teardrop Vox electrics, Fender Telecasters and the utterly wacky Gretsch Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunderbird electric.
Petty's new tour, which includes a pair of homecoming shows Friday and Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood, shares the bill with fellow rock veteran Steve Winwood, whose soulful voice proved to be expressive and elastic as ever.
His quintet sometimes meandered with smooth jazz-inflected instrumental excursions and was at its most potent in the more tightly focused 1987 hit "Higher Love" from his '80s solo career peak.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Where: The Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with Steve Winwood
Cost: $68.10 to $153.70