With the rock legends making a rare trip overseas, Shaun Ponsonby joins the sold out crowd in Hyde Park for Tom Petty’s long awaited 40th anniversary tour.
I had doubts that Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers could fill Hyde Park.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Tom Petty. He is one of the most consistent songwriters in American rock. But he hasn’t sold anywhere near as many records in the UK as he has in the US. Compared to the other headliners at the British Summer Time concerts – Justin Bieber, The Killers, Green Day – I knew he would outplay the lot of them, but was unsure if he would sell the tickets.
I couldn’t be more wrong. Hyde Park was brimming, and we were treated to perfect weather for Petty’s southern fried rock and roll.
Before Petty, we were given a full set from “honorary Heartbreaker” Stevie Nicks, striking a perfect balance between her solo and Fleetwood Mac hits. Her voice has deepened significantly over the last few years, but she retains that mystical feel with which she has always captivated.
Unsurprisingly, it was the Fleetwood Mac songs that received the biggest reaction from the crowd. She seemed to include more than usual for the festival audience, with Dreams, Gypsy and Rhiannon amongst the songs peppered through her set.
But there is a lot to be said for her solo material too. Stand Back, If Anyone Falls and especially Edge of Seventeen being as strong as anything she did in her day job. She performed the opening song from the pre-Fleetwood Mac album Buckingham Nicks, afterwards stating that “Dreams do come true. Because 44 years later you can sing a song you thought nobody would ever hear in Hyde Park in London, England.”
By the time she reached gorgeous closer Landslide, I had already decided to pick up some of her solo albums on my way back up North.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers took to the stage with prime nonchalance – no fanfare, intro or announcement. It took most of the crowd a long time to notice that Petty was even on stage until he stepped forward to his microphone to speak. “Have you got your mojo out there?” he asked the 60,000+ in attendance.
The crowd were as laid back as the band, fully immersing in the atmosphere of the hot summer night. There was a peaceful aura in the air and smiles filled the faces of just about everybody present.
This is Petty’s 40th anniversary tour, and his only show outside of America. The reason for this was made clear as he introduced the first song; “We’re gonna play the first song on the first album we ever made – and the first place to play it was England.”
That song – Rockin’ Around (With You) – was accompanied by archive footage from the Heartbreakers’ vault, with emphasis on film of them on The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 70s. It might have seemed like a bit of a lightweight opener, but they quickly followed it up with one their bigger hits, Mary Jane’s Last Dance.
They dispense with the theatrics. Apart from images on the giant screens that surround the stage, there’s nothing to distract from the brilliance of the songs. And they are brilliant. Being psychedelic and avant garde is relatively easy compared to creating a consistent 40 year catalogue of memorable songs. The Heartbreakers may not be the most progressive band in the world, but they’re not supposed to be. This is everything that is good about heartland rock.
This is as much down to the band as it is the songs themselves. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell is never mentioned in greatest guitarist lists. But his understated presence is integral to The Heartbreakers. The same can be said about pianist Benmont Tench, who Petty rightly called one of the most respected piano players in rock & roll.
Surprisingly for a 40th anniversary tour, they were light on their earlier material. Around half of the set consisted of songs from Petty’s solo albums (admittedly in name only), 1989’s monster hit Full Moon Fever and 1994’s Wildflowers.
In contrast, only a handful of songs came from the band’s first few years. That said, one of those tunes was Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around, their 1981 collaboration with Stevie Nicks, who joined the band on stage for an extremely rare outing, much to the delight of the crowd.
After more years than I care to remember I finally heard Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty sing Stop Dragging My Heart Around this evening. Amazing pic.twitter.com/luBNhEjLeo
— Graeme (@GraemeN82) July 9, 2017
As incredible as it was to see Nicks and Petty sing the song together, judging by sets on the American leg of the tour, they dropped classics such as Into The Great Wide Open and You Got Lucky to make way for it. For such a big crowd, it may have been more appropriate to drop mega obscurity Walls or the lengthy jam on It’s Good To Be King instead.
But that is a minor quibble when they are busting out a mass singalong of Free Fallin’, or I Won’t Back Down. You Don’t Know How It Feels epitomised the stoned, care free summer vibe with its chorus of “Let’s get to the point, let’s role another joint”.
The band actually helped with this vibe by their attitude. There’s no rush, ya’ll. You would think that you would lose the atmosphere with such lengthy gaps between songs, but it actually added to the chill. The band were in no rush, why should we be?
For us, the highlight was the short acoustic section, especially a stripped down rendition of early 90s hit Learning To Fly. Petty allowed the crowd to sing the chorus at the end of the song, as he ad-libbed over his choir.
The Heartbreakers turned up the amps at the end for Refugee and the main set closer Runnin’ Down a Dream. The final encore of American Girl cued another mass singalong, and it remains one of the finest pop-rock songs of all time.
Petty comes to the UK so infrequently. His last visit was for a short run of shows 2012, and before then two visits in the 90s. Whether they could have sold out this show after frequent visits is a question I won’t bother entertaining. But it did make this gig feel extra special.
It seems as if his popularity in the UK is at an all-time high. The last Heartbreakers album, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, broke the Top 10 for the first time since his 1993 Greatest Hits album, and the last few years have seen them on British TV with surprising consistency (including a full six hour Tom Petty night on BBC Four).
I only hope that this gig, and the reaction from the crowd which appeared to overwhelm the band at times, convinces Tom and The Heartbreakers to visit us a little more often.
- Image: Artist’s Facebook page