On Monday night in Hollywood, Tom Petty had Los Angeles ghosts on his mind as he and his longtime band the Heartbreakers opened the first of six shows at the Fonda. They introduced themselves through the Byrds’ 1967 classic “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” and paid homage to that song’s inspiration, the Monkees, with a rebuttal via “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.”
Petty, 62, journeyed through the past on Night 1 of a stint that will stretch through June 11. The singer moved to L.A. in the mid-1970s at the end of the golden age of the city’s folk rock movement, and told the crowd that it was the music that attracted him, citing the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield in particular. He then dedicated a cover of Little Feat’s “Willin’ ” to “the ghost of Lowell George,” the band’s late lead singer.
He needn’t have verbalized this debt, or those spirits, on Monday. The sound of California permeated the band’s 20-song set, which delivered deep cuts from throughout Petty’s career, peppered with enough hits to underscore the songwriter’s universal appeal. The West Coast ran through each Rickenbacker guitar riff like a breeze through his blond hair, whether the tripped-out, Grateful Dead-suggestive excursion at the end of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” or the jangled joy of “Rebels” from “Southern Accents.”
On a night devoted to lesser-known work from Petty and the band’s consistently engaging discography, the longtime Angeleno presented a hidden narrative.
It’s a plot that not only featured lyrics of seduction, betrayal and obsession but also the support of a devoted fan-base earned through relentless early years touring the highways of California. Multiple nights at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1977, yes, but also miles spent running up the coast from Fresno and Bakersfield to San Jose and Santa Cruz, gigging inland colleges at UC Davis, Chico State and UC Riverside.
Evenings at the Whisky a Go Go and the Cow Palace begot multiple sold-out shows at the Forum. In the process, the Heartbreakers, which still feature fellow Gainesville, Fla., natives keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell and bassist Ron Blair, became one of America’s great rock bands.
Monday’s gig felt part of this continuum. If at times the song selection was a little monochromatic -- mostly due to a lack of rhythmic variety in a few parts of the set -- the images Petty and the Heartbreakers presented were typically vivid.
Petty’s been doing a lot of digging lately. His weekly radio show on SiriusXM is an inspired romp through the rock, country, folk and blues music that informs his art, and he presents these DJ sets with wit, knowledge and the passion of a music obsessive, all delivered in his lazy, North Florida drawl.
Like any seasoned selector, Petty and band on Monday cooked through enough singalong gems to feed the eager crowd -- “I Won’t Back Down,” “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and, in Petty’s words, “the one that started it all,” “American Girl.”
But the meat of the show featured them dusting off tracks including the early “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” from the band’s 1976 self-titled debut, “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” from “Hard Promises” and the sexy blues romp “Cabin Down Below” from Petty’s solo album “Wildflowers.”
Though Petty’s crawling voice and easy pacing is part of his allure, the Heartbreakers were at their best when Petty asked more of his rhythm section. Drummer Steve Ferrone understands how to propel movement, as proved through his steady work on upbeat songs such as “You Wreck Me,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and the little-known gem “Melinda,” but too often was relegated to unnecessarily simplistic beats. On the latter, Tench’s keyboard fills were both percussive and melodic, adding necessary texture and offering an extended solo as an exclamation point.
But Petty’s not much on exclamation points. Rather, his calm, clear-eyed delivery suggests a series of ellipses; an artist perfectly at ease with his pacing however it wends and winds over a few hours of playing.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit