‘Twas the night of April 25th, 2017 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN that my soul was touched in a way I have never experienced at a concert before, perhaps even in church, a feeling so unique that actual tears began to fall down my cheeks at the end.
It was a religious experience achieved through the power of rock ‘n roll.
If tried I could have probably spoke in tongues (or at least the Rolling Stones tongue). With the opening help of a vibrant and always eccentric Joe Walsh, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers absolutely rocked Bridgestone Arena to the ground. Even more amazingly, a concert that I expected to just be a great homage to their youth and not expecting them to “wow” me like bands have who are twenty years younger, this ended up becoming my favorite live show ever.
Let me begin by emphasizing I am no concert amateur, I have attended some phenomenal shows: The Killers, Wilco with Angel Olsen, Beth Hart, Dave Matthews Band (not ashamed to say twice,) Porcupine Tree and the formally number one spot- Pearl Jam. Some mediocre: Alice Cooper, Shania Twain, Avett Brothers, and more so lackluster to even remember. I have also attended some truly terrible live shows: Modest Mouse, John Mellencamp and Mumford & Sons. Two of those I expected nothing but greatness, the other I knew going in would be a mess. I’ll let you decide which one that was…
From the very moment my brother and I sat down in our rather perfect seats, (with a perfect angle of the stage and no one in front of us)
I knew this was no ordinary concert. We arrived right as Joe Walsh was already on stage with his accompanying band mates and had two drummers pounding away behind him. At first I thought I was seeing double thanks to the couple Dragon’s Milk bourbon barrel ales I had consumed before the show with extremely high alcohol content, but with my brother as a witness there really were two.
Before his second song, “Life’s Been Good” Walsh quipped in his usual drunken slur of a voice, “If I had known I would be playing this song for the rest of my life I would’ve wrote something better! But I didn’t…” He proceeded to absolutely rip that stage apart with long-winded guitar solos, explosive guitar riffs and vocals that sounded no different than when he recorded the songs 30 years prior. His terrific set also included “Rocky Mountain Way,” “Take It To the Limit,”and “In the City.” As wonderful as Joe Walsh and his band were however, what came next was even greater.
When Benmont Tench, Steve Ferrone, Scott Thurston, Ron Blair, Mike Campbell and the mighty Tom Petty arrived on stage.
The feeling of awe was immediate from the entire audience, the band’s power radiated onto the immense crowd like melting sun rays…and then they started playing. Tom kicked things off with the very first track (“Rockin’ Around With You”) from the band’s very first record, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released in 1976. Hard to believe Tom Petty and core Heartbreakers members have been together for so long, but then again that is part of the magic they share together. I can happily say I now understand in full why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are my favorite American rock band of all time.
Dueling guitar solos between Tom Petty and Mike Campbell were shared in “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” showcasing both the musicians’ excellent skills.
The bluesy interlude between “You Don’t Know How it Feels” and “Forgotten Man” took the audience to an ascended spiritual realm that I can honestly say for me lasted up until the very last moment of “American Girl” two hours later.
Petty explained how the band hadn’t played “You Got Lucky” live in around a decade and to watch for mistakes because of this. Yet this is a band of nothing but perfection in their ability and after the song, an extended guitar solo from Campbell drifted into a sweet and shimmery keyboard medley from Benmont Tench.
It was around the ninth song of the setlist that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers especially blew me away.
The band began playing “Don’t Come Around Here No More” familiarly but then decided to break down the song into an acoustic version as opposed to the synth masterpiece of the original form. (I figure this is partly because the Heartbreakers were never a fan of this song when it was released in the ’80s to begin with, as it was a track produced and co-written by David Stewart of the Eurythmics and Tom Petty without Heartbreakers.) During the breakdown the audience engaged in a slow clap initiated by Petty, following this the band quickly drifted into a hardcore rock-out ending to the song that had the audience engaging in their greatest head-banging attempt.
My favorite moment of the entire concert was “Good to Be King.”
This song was immensely more satisfying live than as a studio recording fit for 1994’s Wildflowers. Something about Petty’s vocals during the performance added an extra element lacking in the recorded version, and beyond this the song ended up being around 11 minutes live because the band played an extended version with insanely mesmerizing blues guitars and a haunting performance from Benmont Tench on piano.
With “Learning to Fly” the concert took yet another surprising turn, with the song lacking the electric elements of the original version. It was just Petty’s vocals and him on acoustic guitar with a dreamy piano backing from Tench. This became another audience participation highlight as well, with audience taking over the chorus for Tom as he played guitar and smiled over us like the rock god he is. Once it was over Petty took out his 12-string guitar for “Yer So Bad.”
One of the greatest all-out rockers of the show was “I Should’ve Known It” with heavy bass from Ron Blair, a Heartbreaker not to be overshadowed.
It was him that brought about the band’s conception way back in the ’70s.
Seeing the band play “Refugee” live was insanely thrilling and far superior to the recorded track, Mike Campbell gave it his all on the guitar solos and never wanted to relent. Sweet mercy, if my socks weren’t already knocked off at this point they definitely would have there.
The encore break where the audience is supposed to cheer and holler was especially comforting as well, this was no phony job from the audience. The people truly wanted this American godsend in rock to come back and grace us with their presence once more. Usually at concerts the cheering feels like routine and a mundane act. Not this time. Each performer had the gusto and excitement to be playing live as I imagine they did when they first became a band and toured arenas like this one for the first time. Don’t let the ages of these gentlemen fool you, I will happily be attending their 60th anniversary tour!
My brother’s favorite moment was closing show song “American Girl.” The song went on to be an extended play of around six minutes with the band giving it their all. The Heartbreakers fronted by Petty never seemed so ecstatic to be somewhere, at that exact moment, with all of us. It was after the final explosive drum beats and finishing matching guitar strums that my spirit finally descended back into my body, not that I wanted it to.
If I could replay any moment of my life again and again, it would be that unforgettable night in Nashville with Tom and the Heartbreakers.
The full setlist:
1. “Rockin’ Around With You”
2. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
3. “You Don’t Know How It Feels”
4. “Forgotten Man”
5. “You Got Lucky”
6. “Won’t Back Down”
7. “Free Fallin'”
9. “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
10. “Good to Be King”
11. “Time to Move On”
13. “Learning to Fly”
14. “Yer So Bad”
15. “I Should’ve Known It”
17. “Runnin’ Down a Dream”
18. “You Wreck Me”
19. “American Girl”
Spends too much time spinning vinyl and wandering down a spiritual path.