A long time ago, when cigarettes were cool and rockers took risks, a Gainesville grit named Tom Petty ditched the Sunshine State in search of that Southern California sound. He famously found it, of course, making history far from home.
As time marches on, however, there's something increasingly special about a TP gig in Florida. And it's not a one-sided feeling, either. Petty has revisited his Southern roots on myriad songs, and his most recent work features the reunion of Mudcrutch, his prefame crew that worked that ol' college town.
So after all these years, we still claim Petty as our own. And you know what? He's been thinking about us, too.
"We're back in Florida again," the 57-year-old prodigal son grinned at the 16,543 fans young and old, new and forever, packing the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday. "And we're prepared to give you one long rock 'n' roll show!"
Commence glorious hair-pulling hysterics … for two hours.
Hoo boy, did these champs make one awesomely jangly racket. Surrounded by such longtime Heartbreakers as guitarist Mike Campbell, bassist Ron Blair and piano man Benmont Tench, Petty machine-gunned out hit after hit, opening with the Byrdsian assault of You Wreck Me and following with Listen to Her Heart and I Won't Back Down.
Petty still looks and sings like a wily hobo — and that's a good thing. But for all his charms, the night's star was Campbell, not-so-arguably one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He may not look animated; he may even look bored. But his fingers can summon a firestorm lick with ease, and he turned Even the Losers and Saving Grace into sonic switchblade fights. That guy is a monster — and that's a good thing, too.
Underneath a light show that looked like an exploding Venus flytrap, Petty and his Heartbreakers slugged out the rafter-rattling riffs and got to those catchy parts as soon as possible. Is there any chorus as bittersweetly life-affirming as the one from Free Fallin'? The answer is no, although the joint was just as loud for Mary Jane's Last Dance and Breakdown.
At this stage in his career, Petty could try half as hard and be embraced, but music obviously saves this man's soul. The night's sweetest moment was a frisky rendition of the Traveling Wilburys' End of the Line, a heavenly wink to George Harrison and Roy Orbison, fallen members of that super side project.
And so it went, Petty & Co. cranking out the hits, dusting off killer album cuts. Honey Bee had a sinister stripper-pole grind, with Tench adding a slinky piano line. Learning to Fly was rendered acoustic and gentle. Don't Come Around Here No More was laced with a trippy whimsy. And both Refugee and an encore Runnin' Down a Dream turned into Campbell's air-siren takedowns.
Welcome back, boys.
Petty wasn't the only icon firing up the memory machine. Sixty-year-old Steve Winwood — of the Spencer Davis Group, of Blind Faith, of Traffic, of slick '80s Michelob commercials — opened with a start-slow, end-sublime set including Can't Find My Way Home, Dear Mr. Fantasy, and a crazy-good Gimme Some Lovin' that got the throngs good 'n' juiced for the homecoming headliner.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.