A smiling Tom Petty was visibly moved by the overwhelming crowd response to “Free Fallin'” during Saturday night’s sold out show at Oakland’s Oracle Arena. It was the third stop on the band’s massive tour that stretches until October, and after each classic slab of radio gold, whether it was show opener “King’s Highway,” the slow burn of “Breakdown,” the emotionally-dense “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” or the anthemic “American Girl” off the Heartbreakers’ 1976 debut that closed the show, fans seized every opportunity to shower the stage with adoration. And for good reason.
Petty is a cornerstone of American rock music, responsible for penning some of the genre’s most celebrated songs. But live, the band is about more than just Petty’s songwriting and vocals. Two of rock’s unsung heroes, band co-founders Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards, lead a tight, musically polished group that includes original bassist Ron Blair, multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston, and drummer Steve Ferrone.
A strong opening set from Joe Cocker (later Petty dates feature CSN, ZZ Top, Buddy Guy, My Morning Jacket, and Drive-By Truckers) that included classics “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “You Are So Beautiful,” “Feelin’ Alright,” and “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” helped give the night an even deeper sense of history; as did seeing local guitar legend Carlos Santana enjoying the show from the audience.
Over a 30-year-plus career, Petty may have lost a bit of his rock star swagger, but his voice is clear and strong, and his guitar playing, which sparred impressively with the virtuosic Campbell all night, has improved. At age 59, he’s pulling off the rare trick of growing old with grace while remaining pertinent in the young man’s game of rock’n’roll.
The 16-tune set lasted more than two hours and only occasionally drifted from greatness, most notably during a five-song run of new material from the upcoming Mojo (due June 15), the Heartbreakers’ first album in eight years.
It’s not that the material was weak; the songs actually showed considerable promise, taking on some of the energy from Petty’s early Mudcrutch days. But the new stuff would have benefited greatly by being integrated with the sing-along super hits that comprised the rest of the show.
Of the new batch, the psychedelic “First Flash Of Freedom” stuck out with its Allman Brothers-like riffs, as did the giant hook of “I Should Have Known It,” and the juke joint stomp of “Jefferson Jericho Blues.”
In the middle of the three song encore, the Heartbreakers brought the tempo way down during a brooding rendition of Van Morrison’s “Mystic Eyes,” opening up space for Petty to lean into the mic and say, “Wouldn’t it be great, if for one moment, everything was all right.”
No worries, it was.
1. King’s Highway
2. Listen To Her Heart
3. I Won’t Back Down
4. Free Fallin’
5. Oh Well
6. Mary Jane’s Last Dance
7. Driving Down To Georgia
9. Jefferson Jericho Blues
10. First Flash Of Freedom
11. Running Man’s Bible
12. I Should Have Known It
13. Good Enough
14. Learning To Fly
15. Don’t Come Around Here No More
17. Runnin’ Down A Dream
18. Mystic Eyes
19. American Girl