Tom Petty, troubadour of the turning points in American life, kept a capacity-crowd at Germain Arena on its feet Tuesday with a heaping setlist of favorite anthems.
Where Bruce Springsteen has always waded into urban grit, Petty has profiled small-town identity crises ("Learning to Fly"), heartbreak ("Don't Do Me Like That") and determination ("I Won't Back Down") with razor-sharp clarity. His ability to musically frame our vulnerabilities are what has cemented his enduring popularity with generations of fans like a father-daughter pair, Steve and Rachael McDonnell, from Cape Coral. They were in the front row hoping to nab one of the Heartbreakers' tossed guitar picks (they did) and hear "Don't Do Me Like That" (they didn't, but still scored most of their favorites).
Another young fan, Kurt Robinson, 27, of northern Indiana, was actually following this tour for multiple dates. Robinson said he cut his musical teeth on hip hop, but after attending a "mind blowing" Petty concert in 2008 with his father, has been a follower, getting tickets to see at least two to three shows whenever the band announces its tour.
He and other fans were so familiar with lyrics that during "Learning to Fly," the audience sang the entire chorus to Petty, who scatted behind them:
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing ...
Petty appeared wan, and took a little recharge time early on, to flapping his arms, shimmying and cruising the stage during "You Wreck Me" while longtime stage partner Mike Campbell riffed economically and sweetly. But he didn't drop a song from an expansive repertoire that kept the group onstage for more than two hours.
"I have to tell you, we're really excited to be back in Florida," the Gainesville native told the cheering crowd, promising, "I don't have to be anywhere, so I'm gonna play for quite a while!"
Petty lives in Malibu now. But he threw intermittent bouquets to his Florida fans, thanking them, before his "American Girl" encore, "for all the great support you've given me through the years."
Petty fans had to be delighted to hear vintage tunes like "Here Comes My Girl" and "Refugee" from his 1979 "Damn the Torpedoes" album; younger fans of Petty's Traveling Wilbury experience were treated to "Handle with Care." "Spike," a wry narrative of venturing into Gainesville's "hippie-killer" lounge, was for everyone.
To the Band's star, Levon Helm, who died two weeks ago at age 71, the group dedicated "Have Love Will Travel."
Petty's stripped-down, sincere lyrics make pain sound good; alone they're enough to sell his songs. But on Tuesday night, with the Heartbreakers behind him, they were gold in the memory vault.
Campbell, who has been playing with Petty since 1974, is the American Express of lead guitarists: Don't leave home without him. He gracefully tucked in short riffs at the right spot, and vamped with Petty — who can still package ultra-decent licks — for "Mary Jane," to the delight of the audience left of the stage. Triple-threat Campbell (Petty album producer and melodysmith behind Don Henley's "Heart of the Matter") took over "It's Good to Be King" with a solo of soaring runs.
Other longtime Heartbreakers were in precision sync: Scott Thurston, who can double Petty's guitar and even sing a Roy Orbison role, as well as perfect-fill bassist Ron Blair and keyboardist/session playing giant Benmont Tench. So genuine is a partnership with Petty that its newest tiger — Steve Ferrone, Average White Band alum — has been drumming with this group since 1994. It's too bad Petty can't get any good help.
Much of the repertoire reprised hits, a tribute to how many Petty has written and/or sung. It included songs like "Listen to Her Heart," "Yer So Bad" and "Runnin' Down a Dream." But he could still slip into various voices to charm the audience with lesser known tunes such as "Something Big" and the bluesy "Lover's Touch."
As he bade farewell to the throng, one fan threw a uniquely Florida tribute, a bouquet of sunflowers that broke up into a shower of gold over the stage. Obviously, Florida was as glad to see Tom Petty as he was to see it.
Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor opened the evening. Her eclectic music was difficult to nail down to a specific genre, but included a unique approach: dramatic pauses right in the middle of a tune. The Russian-Jewish singer, who emigrated with her family from the former Soviet Union, performed with a strong and powerful voice and played a solid piano, but too many of the audience missed it by talking through her hourlong set. Can they spell rude?