The air felt heavy and expectant at The Gorge Ampitheatre last Friday as fans gathered to take in the rock legend of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. The band is riding high on the wake of their first number one album, Hypnotic Eye (how is it possible that this is their first number one?), and is in the midst of a massive tour stretching out into October. Although Petty and his bandmates have been recording and touring for decades now with repeated, massive success, the show never veered into rote or by-the-book territory. Rather, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ performance showcased a group of musicians who continue to love both what they do and the fans who appreciate it.
Steve Winwood is a legend in his own right, having penned “Gimme Some Lovin'” with The Spencer Davis Group as a teenager, forming Traffic in the late sixties, and then the short-lived band Blind Faith with Eric Clapton. Winwood remained relevant well into the 1980s with the album Back in the High Life Again, which topped the charts and spawned his most recognizable hit, “Higher Love.”
These songs and others such as Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” rang clear and true as the sun went down over the Columbia River, their jazz-tinged melodies moving between the upbeat and the melancholy. Winwood’s voice still has a beautiful tone and clarity, whether heard from behind his Hammond organ or his lovely sunburst Telecaster, and his steadfast backing band kept up musically. Guitarist Jose Neto, in particular, stood out with his Steven Van Zandt looks and his killer hand-crafted Rolf Spuler guitar. Many in the crowd seemed particularly thrilled to see Winwood perform, and sang along to every song.
Yet, this was nothing compared to the communal roar of sheer joy heard up and down the Gorge as Petty and company started off their portion of the show with a cover of The Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star.” The band proceeded to plunge into a lengthy set that ranged from new songs (“U Get Me High,” “American Dream Plan B”), old favorites (“Refugee,” “American Girl”), tracks taken from Petty’s solo albums (“Free Fallin’,” “Yer So Bad,” “You Wreck Me”), and a few lesser-known gems (“Rebels” and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” the latter a Travelling Wilburys song). The Heartbreakers tend toward the older concert model of jamming, which provided a lot of room for rock-noodling by veteran guitarist Mike Campbell and story-telling by Petty. The tracks from Hypnotic Eye showcased a return to the style that fans of older Petty albums will appreciate; “U Get Me High” takes a riff that could have been on Damn The Torpedoes and fuses it with a subject that is near and dear to many Hearbreakers fans’ hearts. “I know it’s legal here,” Petty told the crowd with a grin. “News travels fast to my house.”
Musically, the band was on point, which was to be expected. Campbell and Petty had an arsenal of guitars at their disposal, ranging from 1964 Gibson SGs, Telecasters, Rickenbackers, and a beautiful matched set of Gibson Firebirds. “Rebels,” a song off of 1985’s Southern Accents, started off a mini-set of acoustic songs that was bookended with the crowd singing along to “Learning To Fly.” The new song “Shadow People” won the rocker award and included a searing Campbell guitar solo. The set onstage was far simpler than 2010’s Mojo tour; the band eschewed video screens in favor of simple white stage lights with smaller color accent lighting.
The crowd, while older, reacted with wild, drunken, stoned abandon during the show. Fans were constantly filtering up to the front of the stage and continually being turned back by security. But it’s hard to blame them. Who wouldn’t want a moment with one of the most influential, best-selling bands of all time? It’s clear that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit upon a winning, singular formula back in the 1970s, and while it’s often copied, it can never be duplicated. “American Girl” closed the show and the crowd lost their collective mind. It’s simultaneously unbelievable and matter of course to think that the song that started it all for The Heartbreakers is still relevant. Listen to the radio, and you’ll hear snatches and echoes of it in music today. And that is quite a legacy.