Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hadn't toured in four years, and Petty hadn't recorded with his longtime band since 1991, but there was no rust evident, or audible, when they performed at the Nissan Pavilion on Friday night for 15,000 fans hoping to be rewarded for their patience.
Which they were.
Though Petty performed a quintet of songs from his recent "Echo" album, he wisely served up an invigorating career retrospective, a 23-song set that ranged from 1976's breakthrough single, the tersely propulsive "Breakdown," to a wistful "Walls" from his 1996 soundtrack project, "She's the One."
Kicking off with "Jammin' Me," his smoldering collaboration with Bob Dylan, and the twangy-guitar driven "Runnin' Down a Dream," Petty moved easily between forceful roots rockers and emotionally scarred confessionals. The latter included "You Don't Know How It Feels," the roiling "You Wreck Me" and "Don't Come Around Here No More," whose languorous psychedelia and melodic ennui mask a simmering rage over romantic betrayal.
That juxtaposition is also evident in the new "Rhino Skin," in which a palpable vulnerability is barely muted by caustic asides, and "It's Good to Be King." Though grounded in melancholy bordering on self-pity--the title phrase is more ironic than boastful--"King" turned into one of the night's highlights when the Heartbreakers fleshed it out with thunderous cadenzas, including a somber one-note samba by guitarist Mike Campbell and an instrumental passage that suggested a man half drowning, half floating in space.
Campbell, Petty's longtime musical partner, got a pair of showcases--the punchless "I Don't Wanna Fight" and "Penetration," a twangy, reverb-heavy homage to '50s and '60s surf'n'spy guitar instrumentals--but was really at his best providing supple, supportive fills, chiming power chords and sterling leads on such songs as "Mary Jane's Last Dance," the swaggering and defiant "I Won't Back Down" and "Free Girl Now," and the jangling "American Girl."
Campbell isn't the only first-rate musician in the Heartbreakers, of course, just the most visible one. Keyboardist Benmont Tench provided his usual tasteful colorations, while drummer Steve Ferrone and bassist Howie Epstein maintained a lean rhythmic momentum that never overwhelmed the music but pushed it forward and outward as needed.
For instance, on an introspective new song, "Room at the Top," what started as acoustic meditation gradually shifted into raucous emotional venting. Another new song, the Dylanesque "Swingin'," used an insistent sway to champion independent spirits resisting seemingly settled fates--Petty updating his own "I Won't Back Down."
The encore offered the curious bookends of "Free Fallin' " and "Learning to Fly" sandwiched around a liberating but too-long version of "G-L-O-R-I-A." "I'm learning to fly/ but I ain't got wings," Petty mused in his show closer, adding, "Comin' down is the hardest thing." That may have been a challenge for the fans as well, but it's one they seemed eager to address.
CAPTION: Tom Petty moves between forceful roots rockers and emotionally scarred confessionals on his current tour.
CAPTION: Tom Petty, back on the road with the Heartbreakers.