In a neat bit of symmetry, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened their show at Golden 1 Center on Friday night with the upbeat “Rockin’ Around (With You),” and closed with the anthemic “American Girl.”
Those were the first and last songs, respectively, on the band’s self-titled debut album. In 1976, they bookended the public’s first exposure to Petty’s nasally drawl and the Heartbreakers’ driving rhythms. Friday night, they flanked a two-hour re-visitation – and for fans, a celebration –of the band’s impressive yield in the 40 years since.
A week after postponing their original Sacramento date due to Petty’s bout of laryngitis, the Heartbreakers brought their 40th anniversary tour before a sold-out Golden 1 Center crowd, delivering a high-energy set that betrayed no ill effects from – indeed didn’t even mention – the brief disruption.
Petty was scheduled to take the stage around 9 p.m. At 8:59 p.m., the lights in the arena went dark. The band emerged and Petty stepped into a spotlight, wearing a gray jacket over a red open-collared shirt and loose black tie, aviator sunglasses and a cream-colored guitar slung over his left shoulder.
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“I feel a little mojo building up in here,” Petty said, waving to the cheering crowd. “Can you feel it in here?”
In Petty’s cadence, of course, it was a reedy “mooo-joo,” the word itself tapping into the nostalgia of the night. At 66, Petty has indicated that this may be the Heartbreakers’ final major tour. He described the set list for Friday’s show as “a one-sided vinyl LP – we’re going to drop the needle anywhere we want.”
And they did – somewhat. After “Rockin’ Around,” Petty jumped ahead some 16 years to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” then another couple decades to 2014’s “Forgotten Man” from the band’s most recent album “Hypnotic Eye.” (The last met with the least enthusiasm, whether for its newness or the incongruity of Petty singing: “I feel like a forgotten man.” As his reception Friday showed, he clearly isn’t).
Mostly, though, songs tended toward the familiar. Following the moody “Breakdown,” Petty, having shed his jacket, dedicated the defiant “I Won’t Back Down” to “everybody that’s fighting for their life down in Houston tonight.”
“We’re all thinking of them,” he said. “And if you want to sing, that’s OK.”
The crowd did, also chiming in on “Free Falling.” A middle segment of songs from the 1994 album “Wildflowers” gave fans a chance to sit down and catch their breath – and lead guitarist Mike Campbell to expand and riff with Petty on “It’s Good to Be King.”
Rooted in Gainesville, Fla., the Heartbreakers still feature four members of the original band – Petty, Campbell, bassist Ron Blair and keyboardist Benmont Tench. Joining in the 90s were multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston and drummer Steve Ferrone – whom Petty jokingly refers to as “the new guy, ’cause he’s only been in the band 24 years.” Providing backup vocals Friday were Britain’s Webb Sisters.
Introducing each at one point, Petty sprinkled in quips and anecdotes, including one of how he met Campbell in the early ‘70s. Following an ad posted in a music store, Petty said, he and a friend drove out to “the scariest house in Gainesville,” where Campbell came down with a “three-dollar guitar” and started playing “Johnny B. Goode.”
“We got to the end of it and I said, ‘I don’t know who you are, man, but you’re in my band forever,” Petty said.
Eventually the banter stopped, the band content to layer its hits in succession. They played “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” before leaving the stage and returning for a two-song encore.
As the final chords of “American Girl” rang out, a video board behind the stage that had showed live footage all night lingered on an image of the Statue of Liberty. Campbell swung his guitar in a circle above his head. Petty used his to knock over his microphone stand, then thrust it to the ground like a sword and knelt beside it, as if he’d finished a battle.
“We thank you so much for all these years,” Petty told the crowd before departing for good. “God bless ya. Good night.”
* An unofficial set list from Friday night’s show:
“Rockin Around (With You)”
“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”
“You Don’t Know How It Feels”
“I Won’t Back Down”
“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
“It’s Good to Be King”
“Crawling Back to You”
“Learning to Fly”
“Yer So Bad”
“I Should Have Known It”
“Runnin’ Down a Dream”
“You Wreck Me”