“We’ve got a nice long rock ‘n’ roll show for you tonight,” Tom Petty said from the stage of Eugene’s Matthew Knight Arena Aug. 7. “So call the babysitter and tell her you’re gonna be late.”
Most of the audience at the Tom Petty/Steve Winwood concert was — shall we say — of a certain vintage. So the babysitter joke solicited a groaning chuckle from the crowd. My wife and I looked at one another, thinking of our own daughter at home with a sitter. We high-fived bemusedly: “I guess we’re old enough to get that joke now.”
“Her boyfriend’s just getting up-in-there about now, anyway,” Petty quipped and the chuckle became a roar. Oh, Tom — you salty dog.
That’s not to say the Tom Petty/Steve Winwood show was strictly for the blue-hairs. A buzzing mix of people attended the effectively sold-out show, the excitement palpable from outside the venue. Winwood’s set might’ve been better in a more intimate blues club, but his signature voice was in fine form and as he brought the house down with his hit “Higher Love.”
Petty and his long-time backing band The Heartbreakers took the stage with a youthful spring to their step, a bunch of old buddies and it felt that way. What followed was a dizzying selection of Petty hits from his nearly 40 years in the business — hits from all the different Toms: power-pop Petty (“Refugee” and “American Girl”), country-rock Tom (“Into the Great Wide Open”), blues-rock Tom (“Runnin’ Down A Dream”), classic rock Tom (“Last Dance with Mary Jane”) and even Traveling Wilbury’s Tom. Looking around the crowd every man and woman, young and old, knew every word to every song. Petty and his band even worked their way ably through some tracks from their latest release Hypnotic Eye and an Elvis and Byrds cover for good measure.
Matthew Knight Arena is a great place to see a show of this scale. The sound was clear and present — particularly lead-guitarist Mike Campbell’s virtuosity — and the venue large and intimate at the same time. Petty’s Dylan-esque sing-talk delivery is as distinctive as ever. I hope we continue to see acts of Petty’s caliber come through town.
I found myself thinking: did everything this guy write become a hit? I could think of another 12 hit songs the guy didn’t play. Did Petty quietly and subtly soundtrack an American generation? What is it about Tom Petty that makes him so undeniably likeable?
And in “Free-fallin’” Petty sang: “I’m a bad boy/ ’cause I don’t even miss her/ I’m a bad boy, for breaking her heart.” Then I knew: if you can keep the fire in your belly alive, rock ‘n’ roll does keep you young. Petty sings for the underdog, the down-and-out, the American romantic, the brokenhearted and the brokenhearted romantic. Tom Petty doesn’t grow up because, try as we might, we all have to.