Tom Petty has too many songs.
The straw-haired, 66-year-old rocker began his sold-out show at Wells Fargo Center on Saturday with esteemed musical companions the Heartbreakers with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the opening cut on the band’s self-titled first album, which came out in 1976.
Two hours later, the first of two TP & the HBs shows in South Philadelphia this summer – they return on July 29, with tickets still available – closed out with “American Girl,” the last song on that 41-year-old debut album. (That’s right, Petty and band are on a 40th anniversary tour, and their math is a little off.)
In between, there was time for 17 others that surveyed the career of the most consistent hit-making rock-and-roll band of its era. They reached back to early, emphatic classics like “Refugee,” from 1979’s career-making Damn The Torpedoes. And the recent past was nodded to with one cut from 2010’s bluesy Mojo (the fired up, Led Zep-ish “I Should Have Known It,” a showcase for always tasteful, never excessive guitarist Mike Campbell), and one from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye, in “Forgotten Man,” a shimmy-shaking Bo Diddley beat number that was the evening’s one semi-political moment with a “stop the greed” message.
And are 19 superbly played – and particularly well-sung, thanks in part to newly added backup vocalists Charley and Hattie Webb, whom the bandleader said he was “so happy” to have on tour, after seeing them with Leonard Cohen – Tom Petty songs enough?
Of course not. Which is not to say that Petty – who came onstage in a festive mood in a purple smoking jacket and matching vest, and employed his reedy, Florida drawl effectively all evening – should have approached his catalog any differently.
It’s to his credit, in fact, that rather than turn the show into a jukebox barrage of hits, he gives the deeply simpatico Heartbreakers room to stretch out, shining the spotlight on super-sidemen like keyboardist Benmont Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone, the former Average White Band tub-thumper who Petty joked is “the new guy” in the Heartbreakers, having only been with the band 24 years.
Instead, Petty fixated a bit on his 1994 Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers, technically a solo album that nonetheless heavily featured the Heartbreakers. That included hits like “You Wreck Me,” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” with its vintage Petty crowd-pleasing couplet “Let’s get, to the point / Let’s roll, another joint”), but also satisfying deeper cuts like the unhurried “It’s Good To Be King,” and hidden gem “Crawling Back To You.”
Petty also pulled’ extensively from his first solo album, 1989’s Jeff Lynne-produced Full Moon Fever, whose songs are the best examples of his knack for pairing “Hey, Baby!” hooks with universally identifiable sentiments. On Saturday, a sports arena full of fans made a promise that, no matter the challenges they’re faced with, they won’t back down.
His history of pop prowess sees to it that Petty attracts the youngest mass audience among senior-citizen rockers. The native Floridian hasn’t had much commercial success this century, but people grew up on his radio songs of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and his lean productions and just-vague-enough lyrics retain a timeless appeal without being weighed down by too much detail, whether “Running Down A Dream” or heading “Into The Great Wide Open.”
In contrast to 71-year-old opener Peter Wolf – a wicked-thin bundle of energy who opened with a winning full hour of solo material, J. Geils Band hits, and R&B covers – Petty’s never been a dynamic performer. His stage patter never feels relaxed, and he’s always looked feeble when raising his arms above his head to incite audience clapalongs.
But what Petty’s got plenty of is what is elsewhere in short supply: Lots and lots of catchy, enduring songs, delivered with the aid of a superb band (of which he is both the leader and a legit contributing member) that ring bells for old fans while still living in the now. And besides all the ones he played on Saturday night, there are plenty of others – “Listen To Her Heart,” “The Waiting,” “Even The Losers” – that nitpickers were annoyed he didn’t do. He’s coming back at the end of the month – maybe he’ll get to them then.