Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Vic Theatre, 2003


By Mark Guarino

Tom Petty proved what we should already know: stadiums are for sports, not music. After headlining the United Center in early December (capacity 23,000) he returned to town Sunday to play the same show for five sold-out nights at the Vic Theatre (capacity 1,300). In doing so, he showed 21,700 people do make the difference.   

The quieter and more relaxed setting gave Petty to revisit those songs that would have been drowned out under a dome. Petty’s classic rock past is certainly what made him a star, but starting in the mid-‘90s, he began making less hit-conscious albums that are some of his best. They may not have sold as many copies as in his years as a radio hitmaker, but they share the depth and introspection of a songwriter in his prime.   

Petty devoted much of his two-hour, 45-minute set to these songs. They included rarely-performed jewels from his last four albums: “Wildflowers” (Warner Bros.), his soundtrack to the film “She’s the One,” “Echo” and “The Last D.J.” On songs like the piano ballad “Crawling Back To You” and also the hushed and bittersweet “Wake Up Time” “Angel Dream (No. 4)” and “Blue Sunday,” you could hear the subtlety of the Petty’s vocals and the light touches of his long-time versatile band the Heartbreakers. These were prized moments, especially considering that in a stadium, casual fans take this time to light up their cell phones, rush to the hot dog lines and start conversations with their friends in what became routine concert behavior in the arrogant ‘90s.   

Reselling the tickets after most of them ended up being scalped on Ebay helped weed most these people out. Petty and the Heartbreakers are in town to tape an episode of the resurrected PBS live music show Soundstage. After 28 years together, they’re proving they’re a great American rock band with a deep enough songbook to do a different show every night this week. They also took this residency as an opportunity to show how schooled they are in their American musical roots.   

Although Sunday’s show was capped front and back by familiar hits, the band stocked its 30-song setlist with covers that left no influence undone. They included a punk-driven version of The Animals’ “I’m Crying,” The Rolling Stones’ early garage rock blues “Down Home Girl,” Buddy Holly’s signature “Peggy Sue,” “Carol,” a Chuck Berry rockabilly gem and Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman,” with Petty adding Elvis Presley’s leg twitch and hubba-hubba inflection.    

Petty also didn’t ignore where he was. Classic post-WWII Chicago blues permeated the set including “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by Muddy Waters and “Commit a Crime” by Howlin’ Wolf.    

At 52, Petty is at an age most his peers have creatively peaked and are downshifting to take advantage of fan loyalty with through-the-roof ticket prices for nostalgia tours void of adventure but rich in formula. (Tickets for this residency are $49.50 compared up to $350 for the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney.) After deciding in the mid-‘90s to pursue songwriting that wouldn’t bow to radio expectations (his latest album “The Last DJ” actually ridicules the entire music industry), he is continuing a rich career whose legacy is still in the present, not past, tense.

Share this story on your favorite platform: