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“He never let me down”: Twin Cities musicians turn to Tom Petty’s catalog at the Turf

Twin Cities musicians perform the music of Tom Petty at the Turf Club on Oct. 4, 2017. All photos by Nate Ryan | MPR.

Picking a favorite Tom Petty song is like sitting in front of a table laden with the most delicious foods and having to only choose one, so when it came to picking just a handful of songs to share on Wednesday night’s tribute to Tom Petty at the Turf Club, even narrowing them down led into a three-and-a-half-hour evening of music.

For the most part, the relationships between the rotating members of All Tomorrow’s Petty are very much devil-may-care, letting go and picking up when the times work best, since the members have so many outside projects. Perhaps that’s why they’ve been able to carry on for as long as they have; there usually are no rules. Besides consulting the set list that was taped up next to the stage, that was the attitude the majority of the evening: to have fun and not have any rules.

The show was conceived and initiated by Frankie Lee on Monday through a text message thread amongst the members of the Tom Petty cover band, following the news that the musician had passed away. When it was announced that he was actually still alive, they were uncertain if they should still do a tribute show. “We said, ‘Why not?’” keyboardist Bryan Nichols shared. “Why should we wait until someone dies to celebrate their life?”

The night at the Turf Club just happened to have been open, so they contacted First Avenue’s Sonia Grover and Nate Kranz and within 48 hours had sold out the venue. “There were no rehearsals,” Nichols laughingly continued. “We had just done two nights at the Minnesota State Fair about a month ago, so we’re solid.”

Opening with an esoteric, ten-minute instrumental version of “Free Fallin’,” Rob Skoro, Bryan Nichols, JT Bates, James Diers, and Jake Hanson set the mood for the evening that was more celebratory than funereal. Each song was different from the last, with lead vocals traded amongst the members and guests that included Frankie Lee, HALEY, Dave Campbell, Martin Devaney, Jeremy Hanson, Erik Koskinen, Al Church, Zach Coulter, Dan Murphy, Savannah Smith, Aby Wolf, Lucy Michelle, Benson Ramsey, Alex Ramsey, Dave Huckfeldt, Dan Huiting, Neal Perbix, Brian Just, and more.

To “cleanse” the air, Lee, the catalyst of the evening, burned some sweet grass and asked people to communally pass it around the audience when he got onstage and launched into “Straight Into Darkness.” On the way to the Turf, Lucy Michelle asked Brian Just to put on “Great Wide Open” — their duet they would share for the evening — in the car. That cassingle/song was Just’s first musical purchase in fifth grade, making him realize that no one writes a four-chord song better than Tom Petty.

Song after song filled the room with high energy, but there were many moments of reflection, the first led by Dave Huckfeldt before his thoughtful version of “Angel Dream No. 4.” When the members of BBGUN took the stage for “Wildflowers,” all conversation ceased in order to focus on the sweetest sounds coming from the front of the room.

Although all of the proceeds of the evening went to Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief and Everytown For Gun Safety, it was noted that Petty was not a political singer. His music leaned towards life and music and women, and to bookend each set, Jake Hanson reinforced it with “American Girl.”

While no one in the room personally knew the late singer, the common thread that drew everyone to St. Paul on Wednesday evening was that each person had found themselves reflected in a Tom Petty song at some point in their life. “When the world was falling apart, I would always turn to Tom Petty, and he never let me down,” Ben Lubeck shared. Even as a young girl, Aby Wolf appreciated the man and his ability to craft melodies. She shared that “since he’s passed, my takeaway is: we need each other.”

That mantra of finding solace in others and being kind to one another was enough to warm hearts and thoughts before people stepped out into the cold fall evening, but not before Frankie Lee reminded us how lucky we all were to be alive at the same time as this legendary man: “You can always tell when someone really dedicates their life to music, ’cause we know how much Tom loved music.”

Photos by Nate Ryan | MPR