Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers celebrate 40 years of rock god status

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers @ Rogers Arena 17/8/17

Photo by Ryan Johnson
Photo by Ryan Johnson

40 years in the music business is impressive on its own—but 40 years of both critical and commercial success and some truly diehard fans are what gives a band like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the ability to still pack an arena and have every last fan on their feet singing along. The iconic rock group and its enthusiastic, fun-lovin’ leader played Vancouver’s Rogers Arena on Thursday (Aug 17), and rock and roll is definitely still alive.

The 40th Anniversary tour stop had Petty simply stepping onto the stage and receiving an exuberant standing ovation before launching into “Rockin’ Around (With You)”—“the first track from the first album we ever made!”, said Petty with obvious pride and nostalgia. The group has enjoyed near constant success since that first album; for the original members, their humble beginnings in Gainesville, Florida, working the high school dance and club scene would paint an early picture of their drive and power over an audience. Vintage footage of the band that played sporadically throughout the show did not give the impression of the band dwelling on the past, but rather celebrating the journey since first breaking into that 1970s LA music scene. An old Whisky A Go Go promotional poster of the band was especially poignant, taking the audience momentarily back to a time where the LA club was a career starter for acts like Tom Petty and his contemporaries.

“May Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” held that classic Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell spitfire. The latter was in excellence form, giving off an aura of rock genius with a southern droopy hat, sunglasses and floral vest/black shirt getup. Oh and…of course…some truly stellar guitar playing. It’s easy to see how Petty and co. were stunned by the then young guitarist and his barn on-the-fly playing of “Johnny B Goode” all those years ago. “I looked over and said, ‘you’re gonna be in my band forever’”, said Petty about first meeting Campbell.

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Photo by Ryan Johnson

Petty, meanwhile, was an absolute joy to watch. Not only did he look cool with shades, that signature long hair and suede boots, but he was funny and completely on point vocally. True to his nature, Petty’s speaking voice sounded like it has been incubated in hippie rock world all these years. His status as a near perfect rock songwriter is never more evident than when he is witnessed in person—song after song is riddled with hooks and lyrics that could not be anything but classic rock gold. The guy just makes hits. From the fairly recent “Forgotten Man” to beauties like “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, the group proved that they are as tight as ever and can more than give these stellar tracks the performance they deserve.

Benmont Tench was absolutely on fire at the keyboards, wearing a too-cool white wide-brimmed hat and exuding energy. It’s a beautiful thing seeing the founding Heartbreakers members showing audience how it’s done. “Free Fallin’” was, of course, a beautiful sing-a-long point in the evening. Petty showed obvious pride in his songs and his band—“This is the story of Johnny Rebel and his adventures in the great wide open”, said Petty, introducing “Into the Great Wide Open”. Back-up singers English duo The Webb Sisters left much to be desired, delivering fine vocals but providing underwhelming energy and a sense of displacement. Still, Petty danced with them and got the singers moving on more than one occasion. It’s a funny thing when the band that has been around for 40 years has five times the energy of two young blonde songstresses.

Petty and the Heartbreakers took their sweet time coming back onstage for their encore, letting the crowd applaud and scream their name for longer than we usually see at Rogers. Not one to disappoint, Petty flew into the absolutely phenomenal “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl”. The former featured a piano/guitar battle between Campbell and Tench, and the latter proved for the last time that evening that this group is a fine-tuned hit-making machine. And Vancouver was very, very impressed.

Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers
Photo by Ryan Johnson