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Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers kick off summer tour in OKC

Joel Bernstein
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I’m not exactly sure why Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers chose to open their 40th Anniversary Tour in Oklahoma City of all place, but Okies should feel eternally grateful. 

As the band’s first full performance since 2014 and the opening date on a tour that Petty’s said is likely to be the group’s “last big one,” the iconic rock collective gave a performance that served as a reminder to the crowd that they were truly in the presence of living legends. 

“Thank you sooooo much” Petty said, arms above his head while the sold-out crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena cheered on with unparalleled enthusiasm. With the roars of applause only rising in volume, Petty reassured us and the band: “Don’t worry, it’s OKC: We’re gonna be fine.” 

While this is common concert banter, such as the expected “Are you ready to rock (insert city here)?,” you couldn’t help but feel that Petty really meant it. Petty’s unstoppable energy and colorful admiration for the crowd couldn’t be faked. Exhaling after his opening performance of “Rockin’ Around (With You),” a deep cut off of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ 1976 self-titled debut, Petty was already living up to the crowd’s sky-high expectations.

The night started off on a sweet note with Joe Walsh delivering a stellar one-hour pre-show. The Kansas-bred rocker has always been a cult favorite, specializing in the sort of blues rock he helped crystallize in the 70’s as a part of groups like James Gang, The Eagles, and Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.

While the audience was obviously there for Petty, the audience knew the words to every single song Walsh slinged out during his uproarious set. His guitar work was the main star of his performance, but Walsh wasn’t afraid to aim for the heart as well when he said “I’d like to dedicate this next song to my brother and fellow bandmate Glenn Frey,” a founding member of The Eagles who passed away last January. Singing the group’s signature hit “Take It to the Limit,” the entire arena lit up with smartphones as they waved them over their heads in unison. 

Walsh has always been known for his wacky sense of humor, with his ability to poke fun at himself and his bandmates a defining quality of his last tour with The Eagles. He got the biggest laugh of the evening when he introduced his next song by saying “If I knew I was gonna have to sing this song for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t’ve written it. For all you young folks out there, your parents like this one.” And he certainly wasn’t lying given the way everyone roared when he started singing “Life’s Been Good,” his ode to rock debauchery. 

But even if Walsh was a hell of an opener, nothing could’ve prepared the crowd for the main attraction. With over forty years to hone their craft, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers put on a rock show for the ages. Dressed in a black overcoat and vest ensemble, Petty looked like a stoner Jack the Ripper as he performed back-to-back hits with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” And given the hazy green hues that defined the stage layout and hanging orb display that drifted to and from the stage ceiling, I have a feeling the pot-loving Petty knew exactly what he was doing opening the tour on 4/20.

I wouldn’t be shocked to learn Petty was high during the show given the permanent grin and relaxed energy he carried throughout.  “I heard you singing out there, can we sing one together?,” he asked before strumming the gentle melody of “Free Fallin’” while the arena rushed to get their cell phones out so they could record the moment. 

While Petty has always been the face of the group with his nasally sneer of a voice, Thursday’s performance served as a showcase for the rest of the Heartbreakers’ varied talents as well.

Guitarist Mike Campbell’s guitar work was a sight to behold, specifically during “I Won’t Back Down” and the electrifying closer “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Scott Thurston is an absolute all-star, switching from guitar to keys to harmonica all while harmonizing with Petty. Benmont Tench was just as spellbinding on the keys, mostly acting as a background player for the show even though his talent couldn’t be hidden. 

And after working together for nearly forty years, their dynamic has proven to be just as strong as their setlist. There was always a sense of playfulness present, especially when Petty walked to the side of the stage to open a treasure chest with a glowing light inside to unearth the hat he wore in the video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” as the song began to play. 

When most people go to see a concert put on by a classic rock band, chances are they want to hear the hits and nothing but the hits. But the good thing about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers is that aside from a misstep of two in the late 90’s, their work has always been consistently great from their debut up to their most recent release, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. 

The best moments came in the last third of the setlist when Petty sang a series of more low-tempo songs that showcased just how stunning of a lyricist he is. Singing the title track off of Petty’s solo album Wildflower, he had the crowd enraptured through “Something Good Coming” and “Time to Move On.”

At 66 years old now, Petty is a far cry from the gangly 26-year old he was when the group first got together. But his voice has only gotten better, his advanced age giving it a richer tone that greatly aids the emotion he's poured into everything he makes. Whether hitting all of the sweet notes on “Learning To Fly” or strumming along to “Yer So Bad,” Petty’s vocals were in fine form and meshed perfectly with the rest of the group’s performances. It helps that he’s also as endearing as they come, capping off the night by saying “Bless you all, God bless Russell Westbrook” to deafening screams. 

A lot has changed since Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers first burst onto the music scene. Pop has advanced rock to become the ruler of the mainstream, the music industry has been monopolized, and many have even cynically proclaimed that “rock is dead.” 

But by the time the group launched into their encore, ending the night with a stellar performance of perhaps their greatest tracks, “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl,” they debunked that theory once and for all. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are just as relevant as ever, and this nearly sold-out tour is undisputed proof of that. As a fully-realized, industrial-size rock show put on by one of the greatest groups of all time, it made a believer out of every single person in attendance that there’s still hope in the world of rock music.

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About the Author

Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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