Celebrating 30 years making music together, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers treated this Hollywood Bowl crowd to an effortless set of solid gold hits, tasteful new songs and well-chosen covers. Part graceful southern gentleman and part neo-hippie sherpa, Petty put on a clinic on how to play to a crowd without losing its interest along the way. “We’re nothing if not a California band,” Petty drawled, his swooping arm motions and exaggerated, Shea Stadium-sized gesturing effectively dazzling the back of the amphitheater just as well as the front of the pavilion.
Navigating through his hall of fame catalog of dependable rock hits, the perpetually grinning Petty sounded strong and confident on opener “Listen to Her Heart.” The Heartbreakers immediately made their presence felt, blending British Invasion jangle with unmistakably American roots. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “I Won’t Back Down” kept the hit parade coming, only slightly detoured by the awful fluorescent-red leopard and zebra print visuals projecting from the screens onstage.
Petty delivered perhaps his best vocal all night on the singalong “Free Fallin'” augmented superbly by Benmont Tench’s sparkling keyboard waterfalls and Scott Thurston’s thick background vocals.
ZZ Top were surely asking for their riffs back as Petty and company launched into the familiar-sounding current single “Saving Grace” from the new album “Highway Companion.” Mike Campbell bolstered the outro into place with an impassioned slide guitar solo, more than earning his title of “Co-Captain” during Petty’s onstage band member introductions. Campbell continued to lead the charge on the pair of covers that followed, the Bo Diddley-via-Yardbirds “I’m a Man” and the early Fleetwood Mac barnstormer “Oh Well”. Petty described both tracks as being hugely influential on the young Heartbreakers during their first tours in the mid-’70s.
Keeping momentum flowing with perfection, Petty brought out famed collaborator/producer Jeff Lynne for a rare appearance on the Traveling Wilburys hit “Handle With Care.” Naturally, this was only outdone by the introduction of Petty’s next special guest, Stevie Nicks, who dueted on a rousing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and took over lead vocals for “I Need To Know” from 1978’s “You’re Gonna Get It.”
A slower, thicker version of “It’s Good To Be King” was one of the evening’s highlights, complete with gauzy E-bow solos from Campbell at the end. Nicks returned to the stage for an acoustic performance of “Insider” from 1981’s “Hard Promises” and remained there seemingly for the rest of the evening, playing tambourine, singing harmonies and twirling around like a high-class gypsy.
The night-long display of venerable songcraft that Petty delivered was staggering, one-upped only by his own sense of showmanship. The performance sounded as good as rock music can sound in a venue that large, and enough can not be said about the Heartbreakers’ rock-solid musical arrangements. As is becoming increasingly rare in today’s “over-exposed, commercialized” musical landscape, Petty’s body of work boasts melodies as memorable as any currently existing in pop music, and clearly, the Heartbreakers themselves are as consummate as professional musicians can be. How refreshing indeed it is to witness legends, still living, breathing and meaning every note they play.
The Strokes opened the show, playing to an assembling crowd still maneuvering through traffic and concession stand lines toward their seats. “I love it how people in the back get here before the people in the front,” noted singer Julian Casablancas, clearly miffed. Working through a good amount of its newest album, “First Impressions of Earth,” the Strokes injected a fair amount of energy into “Red Light” and “Vision Of Division.” But with the exception of current single “You Only Live Once,” its newest material simply did not match performances of earlier singles like “Hard To Explain” and “Reptilia,” both of which came off with snarling grit and tuneful depth.
Here is Tom Petty’s set list:
“Listen to Her Heart”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
“I Won’t Back Down”
“I’m a Man”
“Handle With Care”
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”
“I Need To Know”
“It’s Good To Be King”
“Learning To fly”
“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
“Running Down a Dream”
“You Wreck Me”