Rock ’n’ roll radio might not be the kingmaker it was in decades past, but last night’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers show at Verizon Arena proved that artists who have a 30-plus-year back catalog of timeless hits can still sell out stadiums, even here in flyover country.
Before the show, I was outside talking to a couple who mentioned how disappointed they’d been back in 2000, when the Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band reunion tour concert didn’t sell out at what was then Alltel Arena. The woman asked rhetorically what it says about Arkansas when a concert from someone of The Boss’s stature fails to pack ’em to the rafters. That was indeed mystifying, but such is the nature of the live music biz. It’s an unpredictable, often fickle beast, where last year’s hot ticket is next year’s dud, sometimes even for established performers. A show that sells out two nights in Seattle might tank in Tampa. Sometimes, it's just that the show was on a Tuesday. Who knows?
Regardless, last night's concert was an unmitigated success. Maybe it’s that Petty had never played in Arkansas before. Maybe it’s that he was a fixture on rock radio (and MTV, back when that channel played music) from the late ’70s through, well, now really. Maybe it’s that he appeals to young and not-so-young alike with a still fresh-sounding mix of classic rock ’n’ roll, Byrds-y Rickenbacker jangle, Dylan-esque folksiness and laid-back style. Maybe it’s all of the above.
Whatever the reason, the stadium was packed last night with the most deafening concert crowd I have ever heard anywhere. When they sang along to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” during Petty’s encore, it was a crushing wave of sound: “Oh my, my / Oh hell yes.”
Opener Regina Spektor’s set was enjoyable. I’ve gotta cop to not being very familiar with her work, but her voice is incredible and distinctive, and she clearly has songwriting chops to spare. Her set was entertaining and she was enthusiastic, thanking Petty and The Heartbreakers “for showing her America.” Her tune “Us” was a vibrant slice of inspired singer/songwriter storytelling.
Petty’s 19-song set was a mix of deep tracks, familiar album cuts and outright hits, heavily favoring the latter two categories. He opened with the chiming “Listen to Her Heart” and then went right into a rollicking take on “You Wreck Me,” from 1994’s “Wildflowers.” The set list jumped around through Petty’s rich catalog, with four songs coming from 1989’s stone-cold classic “Full Moon Fever.” While I got to hear many of my favorite tunes over the two-hour set, I could’ve easily hung in there for another hour or two if it meant hearing the rest of them.
This was the first show I’d ever been to at Verizon, and while people have complained to me in the past about the building’s acoustics, last night’s show sounded incredible, with a mix was just spot-on. Every element was audible and clear.
Of course, a good sound system never hurts. But no amount of acoustical engineering can replicate the sound of a band as tight as The Heartbreakers. The guitar interplay between Petty and Mike Campbell was blistering, especially during a raucous, full-speed-ahead version of “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” When the band took a bow after “American Girl” (a perfect song if ever there was one), the place was radiating with good vibes.
“This is our first trip to Arkansas,” Petty said early in the set, to which the crowd roared. He seemed a little taken aback by the thunderous enthusiasm, but he said they’d return. I’d bet that most of the 14,138 people in the stadium were thinking the same thing as I was: “Oh my, my / Oh hell yes.”
More of Brian Chilson's photos after the jump.
UPDATE: Here's the whole shebang in slideshow form