Walking onstage in all his classic-rock glory, Tom Petty promised folks “a 100 percent rock 'n roll show in Champaign, Illinois,” one that was “100 percent all-natural” and contained “no artificial sweetener.” After assuring the raucous audience at the State Farm Center that no corporate sponsors were involved in the night’s proceedings, he and his Heartbreakers launched into the foot-stomper “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the band’s self-titled 1976 debut record.
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On a humid May night, folks in the orange-and-blue-laden arena got their money’s worth from Petty and his band, who churned out a slew of hits from the past four decades and mixed in several lesser-known gems from the Heartbreakers’ catalog and Petty’s solo work. Those who like Petty’s album Wildflowers were in luck: The band played five songs from it. They also played four songs from Full Moon Fever, another solo record from Petty and a fan favorite.
The group seemed to get more energized as the night went on, playing like a jukebox amid an elaborate light show and in front of a large screen that showed old Heartbreaker footage, animation, and videos to match the songs. Prior to the tune “I Should Have Known It,” Petty promised the crowd, “We’re gonna turn up the amplifiers loud now,” and he wasn’t lying. Following that rollicking tune was “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and, for the two-song encore, “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl.”
With more than 40 years in the bag, there’s a stoic respect and gracefulness about the way Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers play and interact with one another. Behind his sunglasses and sporting a slight paunch, Petty comes off as the joyous, mumbling stoner of the band while cohorts Mike Campbell (guitarist), Benmont Tench (keyboardist), and Ron Blair (bassist) convey a more detached vibe, enduring comments to the crowd from their lead man that they likely hear every night. Whiz-bang drummer Stan Lynch Steve Ferrone cracks smiles the most often, but mostly the guys play and dress in a professional manner, with coats being shed as the show gained steam.
While introducing band members, Petty gave a well-deserved shout-out to backup singers Charley and Hattie Webb, whose voices brought a lightened sheen to the songs. Known as the Webb Sisters, the English siblings seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves as they sang and danced onstage; their presence added a nice touch to a show that was indeed raw and unfiltered as Petty promised.
Another stringy-haired, nasally toned, blonde classic-rock dude in his 60s was also in the house. Joe Walsh opened the evening prior to Petty the only way he knew how: by saying “good morning” to the crowd. His performance was just as riveting as the Heartbreakers, perhaps even more so in some ways. With a humble wave and a slight smirk on his face, Walsh led off with the rocker “Meadows” and proceeded to play a few Eagles tracks, a few James Gang songs (both bands he has played in) and of course his solo work, which is truly worthwhile material going back to the early 1970s.
Along with being an incredible guitar player, Walsh is a funny guy with quirky song lyrics. Much of his music has a trippy, meandering vibe that’s often missing in rock and roll today. Throughout his set Walsh joked with the audience in a slurry voice, mimicked throwing a bowling ball during the reggae-tinged song “Ordinary Average Guy,” checked his watch as if he were bored, and shrugged his shoulders a few times as if to indicate he was clueless about his surroundings. The guitar strap over his shoulder looked like police tape and said “Do Not Cross.” His shenanigans drew laughs from the crowd and from his bandmates.
Walsh’s time onstage was somewhat unique with two drummers (one of whom also lent his talents on keyboard), four backup singers (one of whom deftly sang a verse from the Eagles song “Take it to the Limit”), and some guy who came onstage briefly to play what sounded like a cowbell. The 10-piece band played tightly but with a looser personality than Petty’s; it was evident they were having fun.
Ditto goes for the crowd Walsh was entertaining in the half-full arena, from the kids in attendance with their parents to middle-aged parents to an older gentleman who had trouble making it down the stairs to the floor of the arena. The wide range of ages that Petty and Walsh drew is a testament to their talent, longevity, and perhaps their innate ability to not take themselves too seriously, which, on this night anyway, had an appealing effect.
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Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.