Photography by Robert Altman
There are a couple things you assume when going to a show for someone as old and celebrated as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Some middle-aged folks commiserating about how things ain’t what they used to be over beer by the bar. Maybe some sons and daughters unwillingly brought along for a family outing. There was probably a lot of that at Madison Square Garden — cocktails weren’t as popular as they ought to be — but it wasn’t like the Middle Americans of New York came out to play on that Wednesday night. Petty’s fans are no different than fans of Breaking Bad: They’re both very eager to tell you how good he is.
I’ve seen The Heartbreakers seven times. They’re amazing!
Are you kidding?! They’re the best performers ever!!
The pre-show explanations did have their credence — you’re not seeing Petty seven times if he sucked live — but at the end of the day, you’re either all in for some Petty or not if you’re going to his concert on a Wednesday night. Petty knows this fact, too. Precisely when the clock hit 9 p.m. (this isn’t an estimate, he came exactly during that scheduled time), Petty strolled onstage with his amicable grin and wordlessly went into his cover of The Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star” and the Greatest Hits single “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” before speaking to the somewhat filled arena.
The thing you eventually discover as The Heartbreakers whisk through their oft-forgotten singles (“A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)”, “Two Gunslingers”) and radio staples (“I Won’t Back Down”, “Free Fallin’”) is that such a concert isn’t as communal an experience as you’d think. It’s not folks with families commiserating over the easier times.
The difference between a young and modern act and one of the Heartbreakers’ veteran stature is that the former allows the audience to relate a current zeitgeist to personal experience and transition it to a shared one. Human memory is a tricky thing, though. The cultural climate when a song like “Free Fallin'” dropped is now recalled by varying generations through cloudy, scratched lenses. So, there are personal experiences that mostly don’t intersect.
But, the night was more than anyone’s personal nostalgia. Towards the end, Petty represented the rock star as a religious leader. Dark, blue lights adorned the arena as the legend conducted a spiritual sing-along. This wasn’t cultist, but escapist, as Petty worked his way through his cover of Paul Revere and The Raiders’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”. “Rock and roll will set you free,” he said minutes before the audience left to continue menial lives as city civilians.
Things change, but Petty and his Heartbreakers remain a constant to everyone old and young.
So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star (The Byrds cover)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
American Dream Plan B
Into the Great Wide Open
I Won’t Back Down
A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)
U Get Me High
Yer So Bad
Learning to Fly
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
You Wreck Me
(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone (Paul Revere and The Raiders cover)