Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the United Center, 2002

By Mark Guarino

It must be the dream of all teenagers who make music in their parent’s garages that they grow up to be something like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. After 26 years, the band identifies the rock and roll ideal that brotherhood, bravado and songs praising girls is as American as grandma’s pie. The right to practice that into adulthood is the dream and for the few who get there, a sacred honor.   

That righteous spirit was at the forefront of the band’s show Wednesday at the United Center. Petty and his perennial five bandmates had a long shared past to dig into, as they played 23 songs in two and 1/2 hours. Now 52, Petty finally looks like a walking piece of Americana. With his toothy smile, strawman hair and work boots, he’s a working class hero whose staple anthems like “Refugee” and “I Won’t Back Down” will never get a yawn because fighting for your rights is a primal American tenet, even though most people don’t have the luxury to deliver.   

Petty also made it clear his tour was free of sponsorship, not so typical of boomer rockers these days. “While Pepsi-Cola may be a really good soft drink, I can’t imagine how they’re going to help me musically,” he said from the stage. “We’re brought to you by you.”   

The show was at its best when it evoked that insurgency without much trying. Petty talked about the corporate stranglehold most Americans live under — that’s the theme of his latest album “The Last DJ” (Warner Bros.). While the title cut and other new songs had plenty to say on the subject, it wasn’t as articulate as the band’s performance on songs that weren’t so specific.   

The great rock and roll scenario is that fans show up in hope the band magically manifests their hopes and dreams in music that they can’t obtain in life. The Heartbreakers nailed it early with “Free Fallin’.” The chorus is anthemic, but Petty sung it like a cheer and the crowd followed suit. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — a song that on paper is really a bunch of one-liners — was stretched into a hippie groove for dancing. The band turned on their communal switch, playing with it collectively and tossing it from person to person. By the end, the song’s one-line chorus — “you don’t know how it feels/to be me” — was drained of any linear meaning. It was pity or pride or both.  

As always, guitarist Mike Campbell provided the color, whether tasty slide guitar fills or punched-up punk. He, Petty and Scott Thurston formed a three-man guitar line on the night’s heaviest rock moments, (“You Wreck Me”). In tribute to George Harrison, they recreated a past hit (“Handle With Care”) by the Travelling Wilburys — the supergroup including Petty and former Beatle.    

When Petty dwelled on his mid-career period — still his weakest — he turned to ancient arena rock techniques, particularly the coached audience singalong, in order to spice up songs that were paper thin from the start. But for an encore, Petty switched to Chuck Berry’s “Carol” — a nostalgia trip into teenage lust that still worked to conjure up a dance party.   

Even though he was the opener, fellow Californian Jackson Browne played a 90-minute headlining set, including an encore. Although his newer songs ended up standard groove jams, the older and more piano-based songs (“The Pretender,” “Running On Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes”) were showcases in durability.

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