By Mark Guarino
There was an in-joke at Tom Petty’s show at the Charter One Pavilion Thursday but it was easy to miss. The set-up, delivery and punch line was The Strokes, the New York band selected to open the show. In the long line of rock ‘n’ roll appropriation, The Strokes are known for “honoring” Petty when “Last Nite,” their debut single off their first album in 2001, was a direct rip-off of Petty’s “American Girl.”
Petty never sued, and there’s good reason. Many say Petty’s song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” directly imitates “Waiting For the Sun” by The Jayhawks. And so on and so on.
“The honor and pleasure is all our’s —obviously, we’re great fans,” said Strokes lead singer Julian Casablancas, sheepishly. We know.
The Strokes played an hour set, but came off more like headliners, playing harder than their albums and winning over the audience.
Petty arrived with the Heartbreakers, his long-time band that is mostly absent from his recent solo album, “Highway Companion” (American). The tone of these new songs is more sobering than the reliable rock anthems that made him a star in the glory years of FM radio. His 21-song, two-hour show included three songs from that album — “Down South” came from Petty’s reliable canon of jangle pop, “Saving Grace” was a chugging blues rocker but “Square One” was far more wistful, a song that Petty asked for quiet and, with surprise, received.
Thursday’s show — the first of two nights — was all about the Heartbreaker’s dexterity of styles over the years, the execution of some of rock’s most well crafted songs and the polish of their presentation.
Although Petty’s most obvious influence is the rootsy psychedelics of The Byrds and The Beatles, at this show he saved room for honoring Chicago blues. Makes sense since Northerly Island is located just a short walk from South Michigan Ave., the former home to Chess Studios, where the golden age of blues performers recorded the classics from that era. Petty filtered these songs through British rock — Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” was given the full Yardbirds treatment and a cover of “Oh Well” by the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac captured that Diddley boogie beat. Heartbreaker Benmont Tench played barrelhouse piano, perfectly suited for a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”
Petty’s songbook is so durable that the rest of the evening was lined with familiar hits refashioned more often than not to include the constant stream of audience vocals. Guitarist Mike Campbell (now topped with short dreads) executed perfect leads, often filling the taut rockers with more mystical improvisation.
Petty looked to be clearly enjoying himself — after all, Thursday was declared “Tom Petty Day” by the Mayor’s Office. “I’m in a good mood tonight,” Petty told the crowd. “The mayor just gave me a joint backstage.”