“This song is absolutely all I remember of 1991,” Tom Petty admitted before kicking into a slow, steady version of “Into the Great Wide Open.” Like many of the hits that dominated the Heartbreakers’ 90-minute set last night at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, the tune was engineered to be a crowd singalong, coasting along at an unhurried pace that allowed all fans —no matter how many cups of $9 draft beer they’d consumed —to shout along at mass volume. The trick worked, too…which was helpful, because Petty and the boys seemed a bit tired of the old stuff.
During the songs that didn’t involve much audience participation, though —namely the four cuts from Hypnotic Eye, as well as one of MOJO‘s bluesiest ball-busters, “I Should Have Known It” —the Heartbreakers became a different band, one that played not for the audience but for the simple joy of playing itself. They slashed and burned, stretching songs like “Shadow People” far past their original limits —thanks to some mid-song jamming between Petty, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, the latter Heartbreaker looking quite a bit like Jack Sparrow these days (albeit with a Flying V instead of a cutlas) —and turning the Bo Diddley beat of “Forgotten Man” into something fit for the arena as well as the juke joint. They sounded like a band reborn, in other words —like a group of career rockers who’ve learned to replace the speed of their younger days with the sneer and swagger that only arrives after nearly 40 years in the business. Hypnotic, indeed.
The greatest hits portion of the evening didn’t fire on quite as many cylinders, although “Learning to Fly” —which was stripped to its acoustic roots and rebuilt as a slow-burning folk song, with the audience handling the final chorus while Petty ad-libbed in the background —proved that the Heartbreakers still wear restraint well, and Campbell’s solo at the end of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” brought down a house that included Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell and other members of Nashville’s guitar-playing cognoscenti. Short by Heartbreakers standards, the show wrapped up after an hour and a half, leaving no room for hits like “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Breakdown” or any Damn the Torpedoes tracks beyond “Refugee.” Maybe the guys should’ve shortened their mid-set tunes with opening act Steve Winwood, who returned to the stage to perform long, improv-heavy versions of “Can’t Find My Way Home” and “Gimme Some Lovin.'” Still, between a band that makes new albums to satisfy contractual deals and a band that makes new albums because their new songs demand it, we’ll take the latter…even if it means the older tunes fall a little flat by comparison.