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Review and photos: Tom Petty celebrates 40 years of rocking, at Xcel Energy Center

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the Xcel Energy Center in June 2017. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

There was a lot of mojo working at the Xcel Energy Center last night. Just some great vibes. Don’t take my word for it, though: that was the pronouncement of Tom Petty himself, walking onstage and welcoming the packed arena with open arms.

At Petty’s level — 80 million records sold, 15 years of membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s been in a band with Bob Dylan — is there any rock star less assuming? Petty’s understated genius applies not just to his personal demeanor, but to his music. He’s always accessible, without ever being dumb or boring.

He and his band the Heartbreakers are currently celebrating 40 years of making music together, and his band members (with the exception of founding drummer Stan Lynch, who was fired in 1994) have been so apt to show up on his nominally solo albums that it’s fitting to have those songs included as well.

“If you think of a 40-year career like one side of a record,” said Petty, “we’re gonna drop the needle all over the place.”

Though the 19-song set (including a two-song encore) did span Petty’s entire discography — from the band’s self-titled 1976 debut to Hypnotic Eye (2014), their most recent LP — it was weighted heavily towards the two “solo” albums that have become among Petty’s best-loved. The band played four songs from pop smash Full Moon Fever (1989), and no fewer than five from Petty’s 1994 Rick Rubin collaboration Wildflowers.

That was quite a statement in a show that featured only a single song from 1979’s seminal Damn the Torpedoes, but Petty’s been plumbing his ’90s archives for a promised collection of unreleased tracks from the Wildflowers era, so maybe he’s feeling especially close to that era.

No one seemed to be complaining about all the Wildflowers songs, though the show’s energy peaked with the early one-two punch of massive Full Moon Fever singles “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’.” There aren’t a lot of movie scenes you can point to and say “Tom Cruise is all of us,” but the Jerry Maguire car-stereo singalong is definitely one of them.

Under an array of multihued spheres that bounced up and down in coordinated patterns — imagine synchronized swimming for spiders — Petty and the band plowed through their hits. The songs are so strong that they don’t need much by way of literal pyrotechnics, and they didn’t get any: Petty, a natty vest buttoned over his belly and a beard covering his face, leaned into the mic and sang his iconic lyrics in that trademark nasal growl while his bandmates largely kept to their places and hit their marks.

Mike Campbell — a frequent songwriting collaborator as well as lead guitarist — is clearly a first among equals in the Heartbreakers, and he and Petty have worked out a division of labor that defines the band’s winning combination of grit and polish. Petty largely handles the hooks and riffs, while Campbell roars alongside and adds bite to the frontman’s bark.

Petty tours with a new type of arena sound system: Eastern Acoustic Works’ Anya, with speakers that look like scalloped columns instead of the traditional curved banks. The system allows engineers to digitally customize the sound for the acoustics of each individual venue, and our photographer Nate Ryan noted how distinct the tones were compared to most arena shows. No wonder that’s a priority for Petty: he uses a different guitar for almost every song.

Unfortunately the graphics that filled the screens behind the band weren’t quite so innovative: historical photos and video of the band added a nice element, but the images of a literal American girl behind show-closer “American Girl” were groan-worthy. (I’d like to hear a Lana Del Rey song about the other side of that relationship.)

For all his present eminence, Petty still comes off as the kid who’s cool because he takes himself seriously, but not too seriously. That’s the image that appears on the cover of Damn the Torpedoes and other early albums: the lanky, sun-kissed Florida boy who’s running down a dream. Four decades later, he’s lived his dream, but he keeps running on.

Petty likes to invite similar anti-divas on tour with him (Dylan, perhaps, excepted), so it was fitting that last night’s opener was Joe Walsh: most famous for being not-the-most-famous Eagle. He complemented Petty’s Gulf Coast shimmer with California gold, deploying that inimitable guitar tone and that all-too-imitable voice.

Other than the fact that his band was as big as Petty’s, Walsh was similarly low-maintenance. Before kicking into the Eagles’ “In the City,” he addressed the millennials in the house. “Trust me,” he said, “your parents really liked this one.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers set list
Rockin’ Around (With You) [Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976]
Last Dance with Mary Jane [Greatest Hits, 1993]
You Don’t Know How It Feels [Wildflowers, 1994]
Forgotten Man [Hypnotic Eye, 2014]
You Got Lucky [Long After Dark, 1982]
I Won’t Back Down [Full Moon Fever, 1989]
Free Fallin’ [Full Moon Fever, 1989]
Walls (Circus) [She’s the One soundtrack, 1996]
Don’t Come Around Here No More [Southern Accents, 1985]
It’s Good to Be King [Wildflowers, 1994]
Crawling Back to You [Wildflowers, 1994]
Wildflowers [Wildflowers, 1994]
Learning to Fly [Into the Great Wide Open, 1991]
Yer So Bad [Full Moon Fever, 1989]
I Should Have Known It [Mojo, 2010]
Refugee [Damn the Torpedoes, 1979]
Running Down a Dream [Full Moon Fever, 1989]
You Wreck Me [Wildflowers, 1994]
American Girl [Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976]

Joe Walsh

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers