Four songs into his set Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, Tom Petty announced that the band’s next song had not been played live in more than a decade.
And with that, Petty and the Heartbreakers kicked into “You Got Lucky,” an ominous masterpiece of a song that elicited a chorus of “hell yeah”s when the minor chords of Benmont Tench’s synthesizer blasted through the speakers.
It was a testament to Petty’s seemingly bottomless repertoire of hits that he could dust off a song like that willy-nilly and still have it be an anthemic arena sing-a-long.
With the exception of the opening number, “Rockin’ Around (With You)” — the first song on the first Heartbreakers record — and a few other cuts, Tuesday night’s show was heavy on the hits, despite the tour being billed as a celebration of that album’s 40th anniversary.
It was also one of the more raucous and engaged crowds this writer has ever seen at Bridgestone. When Petty played Bonnaroo back in 2013, his set was borderline lethargic, and perhaps that was intentional, given the stoner vibe of the festival. But Tuesday night’s show stood in defiant counterpoint to that. And the crowd, which spanned several generations, responded in kind.
Around the front of the stage, in the not-so-cheap seats, one could find a who’s who of Nashville-based musicians, including Robyn Hitchcock and Wilco’s Pat Sansone. Petty even remarked at one point that if you’re not a guitar player in Nashville, you’re a songwriter. But for the most part, the 66-year-old kept the stage banter to a relative minimum, calling the Nashville crowd “unbelievable” and saying “we can hear every word you’re singing.”
Indeed, it seemed at times that the sold-out crowd knew every word to every song. And it was remarkable to consider just how well these songs have aged through the years. So many of these classic Petty cuts seem to exist in the ether, and the very idea of a world without his music is hard to fathom.
Petty’s voice is raspier than it was in his heyday, but it still gets the job done. And the Heartbreakers, led by guitarist Mike Campbell, who these days resembles a dread-locked Captain Jack Sparrow, never break stride. It’s easy to see why Rick Rubin has long called them the best rock and roll band in the world.
When Petty and the Heartbreakers released their debut back in ’76, some critics dismissed them as a “nostalgic” act. How wrong they were. The final track of that debut album, and the final song of the night, “American Girl,” still crackles with thunder, sounding as fresh and vital as the day it was released.