While his music was the chief attraction at The Fonda Theatre in Hollywood on Monday night, Tom Petty proved his pantomiming skills to be a close second. Sure, anyone can wave at a crowd with a big, toothy grin while iPhone camera flashes glimmer as reflections in smiling, squinting eyes. But for Petty, that’s beginner stuff. That’s “American Girl” on a night meant to celebrate the depth and breadth of his career with the Heartbreakers.
And like the set would musically mimic, Petty saluted the crowd between songs with a deep understanding of how to wordlessly communicate with 1,200 adoring fans, ranging from a strong baby boomer contingent that drank like they didn’t want to remember the evening to the predictable fare of backless-dress socialites willing to shell out up to $1,000 for a second-market ticket. Petty gave them salutes like they were military officers, bowed to them like they were royalty, shot imaginary bullets from gun-shaped fingers the way your uncle might display affection in place of actual physical contact. Petty blew kisses to the cheers, touched his chest over his heart, and pointed at the crowd to indicate that we should be the ones receiving applause (a move that never makes sense because we literally are just watching you. Why is that worthy of reward?).
Thirty-six years at one job and you learn these things. Much like the reliable and endearing gestures Petty made from the stage on the first of six sold-out nights in the historic venue, his current concert tour is another symbol of gratitude, allowing die-hard fans the chance to share an intimate performance of rare album cuts and covers. And a few hits, because you can’t throw a dart at the Tom Petty catalog without landing on a jukebox staple.
After a similar run in New York City and prior to a headlining slot at this year’s Bonnaroo, Petty-fever (full moon fever?) spread across the southland, and because of a lottery system and strict two-ticket limit –with all attendees forced to pickup at will call with their guest– people resorted to the aforementioned absurd monetary offers to even more creative pleas. But why? As someone who had never seen Petty and probably would have preferred a run through the big hits and some choice Wildflowers cuts, the night didn’t make me believe like the 1,199 others with me. But, the night wasn’t for someone like me at all.
On the roof of the Fonda Theatre, there’s a bar and you can smoke and they project the show on a large wall with pretty loud volume to enjoy your vice without missing any of the event. On stage, Petty began a song by noting that it was from 1999’s Echo, an album they typically ignore in concert and “have spent many trips to the psychiatrist talking about why they don’t play songs from Echo.” On the roof, a man — 40-years old, white, clearly intoxicated with draft beer in hand — hears Petty announce the song, “Billy the Kid”, and charges toward the wall like a blitzing linebacker, only to stop short and leap into the air while hooting and pumping his fist. He then takes a deep drag of his smoke and discards it haphazardly, trotting back into the venue the glee of a child, all while hardly spilling his beer.
That general emotion, like it was the best night anyone had ever experienced, permeated the audience. And, if you can’t get swept up in that atmosphere of unadulterated optimism, then the world must be a bleak place. The swell of joy that flooded the room when the Heartbreakers followed Petty’s announcement of a song “everyone could sing along to” with the all-at-once iconic opening of “I Won’t Back Down” is a special thing to share with strangers. And the closing run of hits, including “Refugee” and “You Wreck Me”, inspired an ecstatic, celebratory dance party that you associate with winning the World Series or an election. The stranger next to you for a moment was a friend, and though we may all love our contemporary music for stronger, or at least different, reasons, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers can unify in a way that no music today being made today can. Maybe that says something about time, or maybe about music, but this is probably the heart of why it’s so hard to find contemporary artists that can headline a music festival.
As much fun as these American classics were to hear, Petty succeeded in that the most memorable moments were from the deep cuts that comprised the meat of the evening. Near the set’s end, Petty spoke about Hollywood, and how growing up in North Florida, it had always been a dream to come to here, where all the great bands were, going on to mention The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Doors by name. He said while he was in the back of the venue, in an alley where all the bands that have played The Fonda have stood, he thought of all the bands that have played in this city, and how some are still with us and some are gone, with their ghosts still in these rooms. He then dedicated a song to one of the ghosts, Lowell George of Little Feat who died in 1979, and swam through a moving version of “Willin'”. You didn’t need to know the song or the artist to be touched, but just to see Tom Petty expressing a humanity that cannot be pantomimed was affecting and moments like that are probably worth an Audi or a mortgage payment, if you have it to spare.
Plus, he played “Hard To Find A Friend” and it was the best.
Photography by Philip Cosores.
Rock and Roll Star
Love Is a Long Road
I Won’t Back Down
Cabin Down Below
Woman in Love
Billy the Kid
Tweeter and Monkey Man
Hard to Find a Friend
I Should Have Known It
Running Down a Dream
You Wreck Me