TAMPA — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers don't do surprises. After almost four decades of shimmery hits, why bother with artistic twists and showboat chicanery? At 59, Petty puts on a perfectly predictable live show, and bless his Gainesville soul for staying the course.
In front of 14,369 fans at the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday, Petty and his crack five-piece crew were the very essence of sonic comfort food, the soothing shrimp and grits of rockdom. They know what they're good at; they know what you crave.
Same goes for ZZ Top, the hirsute Texas trio that acted as steroidal opening act. For an hour, the Bearded Ones uncorked Legs, Cheap Sunglasses and La Grange, their well-worn Texas blues boogie as familiar as a sudsy tallboy of Bud. "Same three guys right here," said wicked guitarist Billy Gibbons. "Same three chords right here."
Haha! And it's a beautiful thing! Change stinks!
Petty still has his most lethal side-weapons with him: unmistakably godlike guitarist Mike Campbell and slinky organ wiz Benmont Tench. And from the chiming riffs of opener Listen to Her Heart, the guys were in high, crowd-pleasing spirits, stuffing the near-two-hour set list with know-'em-by-hearters, only detouring to highlight four songs from garage-rockin' new record Mojo. (Which is great, by the way. Download I Should Have Known It and try not to break your neck thrashing with joy.)
"We're really excited to be back here in Florida," Petty said, pausing to soak in the native love. "We got so many friends and family and ex-girlfriends backstage!" It seems a crime that this was his only tour stop in the Sunshine State — but hey, I'm not THAT sad.
I Won't Back Down and Free Fallin' came early, giving the throngs a chance to try and out-sing the man on stage; Don't Come Around Here No More and Refugee came late (and LOUD), giving Campbell a chance to slay with solos that are no doubt still ringing in the arena ether. And in between? A cheeky Breakdown, an incandescent Kings Highway, each showing that Petty's pinched croon is still in sublimely swampy shape.
Runnin' Down a Dream, my vote for greatest driving song of all time, and a cover of Chuck Berry's Carol were given hip-shakin' encore treatments. Then Petty asked: "Are you ready?" And we all said "Yeaaaahhh!" Because every single person in the crowd knew this show would end with American Girl. And really now: Why would you want anything else?
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.