It’s a testament to the depth of Tom Petty’s catalog that he can get away with playing “I Won’t Back Down” (recorded by no less than Johnny Cash) and “Free Fallin'” (performed probably zillions of times at karaoke bars worldwide) as the sixth and seventh songs of a two-hour set. The number of living popular music performers for whom those two classics would not automatically have to be the show-closing anthems is probably in the single digits.
Tuesday night at the Erwin Center, Petty and his longtime band the Heartbreakers held what at times felt like a mass-worship rock ‘n’ roll service to a full arena of fans who’ve clearly loved his music for decades. Exhorting the crowd like a Southern preacher (he is originally from Florida, after all) as he took the stage just past 9 p.m., Petty fittingly started up this stop on the band’s 40-year-anniversary tour the way he’s begun all of the shows in this latest leg: with the first song on the band’s self-titled first record, released in November 1976.
“Rockin’ Around (With You)” kicked off a career-retrospective cavalcade that concluded right back where it started, with the obvious encore finale of “American Girl” from the same 1976 debut album. In between, fans cheered loudly, sang along and stood for much of the show as Petty reeled off hits including “You Got Lucky” (from “Long After Dark,” 1982) to “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (from “Southern Accents,” 1985) to “Learning to Fly” (from “Into the Great Wide Open,” 1991).
A mild surprise — if consistent with his other set lists on the current tour leg — was the appearance of six songs from Petty’s 1994 album “Wildflowers.” It’s one of his best-selling records, but between that and four songs taken from his top seller (1989’s “Full Moon Fever”), more than half the show came from just two albums. That meant nothing at all from 1981’s platinum-selling “Hard Promises” or 1978’s “You’re Gonna Get it,” and only one from his 1979 landmark “Damn the Torpedoes” (the obligatory “Refugee”).
Less surprising was the skip of late-’90s/early-2000s records that didn’t resonate as much with most fans. Petty did make a point to include some of his more recent work: “Forgotten Man” came from his most recent album, 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye,” and hometown opener Gary Clark Jr. returned for an incendiary jam on “Good Enough,” one of two tunes played from 2010’s “Mojo.”
Throughout, Petty was a gracious and appreciative host, thanking the crowd repeatedly and profusely during song breaks from start to finish, as the house lights frequently shined on the sea of smiling faces so he could see them all. And he gave lovely introductions to the Heartbreakers, one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands ever: fellow founding members Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards), original bassist Ron Blair (who returned in 2002 after Howie Epstein’s sad demise), multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston (from Iggy & the Stooges) and drummer Steve Ferrone (who replaced co-founder Stan Lynch in 1994).
A crucial sparkplug all night were two newer additions to the touring lineup: backing vocalists Charley and Hattie Webb, English siblings who record together as the Webb Sisters and previously toured extensively with the late Leonard Cohen. Set at stage left, they struck all the right tones and had all the right moves to bring out the spirit of whatever songs Petty threw their way.
They were especially strong on a late-set triptych of acoustic numbers — “Wildflowers,” “Learning to Fly” and “Yer So Bad” — that perhaps should have taken up a longer portion of the set. When Petty switched to acoustic guitar and brought the sound levels down, the Heartbreakers sounded cleaner and sharper; the rock numbers may have had more energy, but the bass-heavy timbre often overrode the vocals in the challenging sonic environment that a sports arena presents.
Clark, whose only previous Erwin Center appearances had in fact been at a couple of those sporting events — playing the national anthem at a University of Texas basketball game, and at a tennis match — got a full hour as the show’s opener. He used it to stretch some of his most dependable numbers, such as “Bright Lights” and “When My Train Pulls In,” into deep blues epics, much like they’re documented on his new live album released a few weeks ago. With a trio backing him, Clark made the most of the big-venue spotlight. It’s a short list of local artists who rise to the level of being able to play the Erwin Center, but Clark was always destined for it.
Tom Petty set list:
1. Rockin’ Around (With You)
2. Mary Jane’s Last Dance
3. You Don’t Know How It Feels
4. Forgotten Man
5. You Got Lucky
6. I Won’t Back Down
7. Free Fallin’
8. Good Enough (with Gary Clark Jr.)
9. Don’t Come Around Here No More
10. It’s Good To Be King
11. Crawling Back to You
13. Learning to Fly
14. Yer So Bad
15. I Should Have Known It
17. Runnin’ Down a Dream
18. You Wreck Me
19. American Girl