Two songs into a Friday evening set at Newark’s Prudential Center, Tom Petty peered into the packed arena. The 66-year-old singer referenced a vinyl record and said that he and the Heartbreakers would drop a needle at different points of their career as they brought their 40th Anniversary Tour to New Jersey. Petty and the Heartbreakers delivered on their promise by playing a 19-song, two-hour show that touched on various points of their tenure together and proved that after 40 years in the business they remain one of America’s most impressive live bands.
If the Heartbreakers were still looking for a challenge it came in the form of opener Joe Walsh. The veteran guitarist set the tone for the night with a career-spanning set that defied the typical boundaries for an opener. Accompanied by a large band that included four backup singers, Walsh went on stage promptly at 7:30 and played for just over an hour.
Walsh, who referenced his graduation from nearby Montclair High School in 1965, eased into the night by playing some lesser known selections from his discography like “Meadows” and “Ordinary Average Guy.” Midway through his ten-song set he dedicated an emotional version of “Take It To The Limit” to Glen Frey, his longtime bandmate in The Eagles who passed away in 2016. As the Prudential Center began to fill up with a late-arriving crowd, Walsh apologized to the millennials in the building for their parents listening to his music so often. He showed why he was a popular FM radio choice by closing with a great run of songs normally consigned to the headliner, “In The City,” “Funk #49,” “Life’s Been Good,” and “Rocky Mountain Way.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers continued the hit parade with their own impressive array of songs that touched on different phases of the group’s career, drawing most heavily from the Wildflowers album. They opened with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first track from their debut record. The band then showed off their chops with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” before playing “Forgotten Man,” a subtle Bo Diddley-style song from their most recent album. One of the biggest surprises of the evening came from a tremendous version of “You Got Lucky.” An early-MTV era song, Petty noted that the tune had not been played on tour in quite some time. The band then played a pair of singalong hits from Petty’s first solo LP Full Moon Fever - “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’.”
For perhaps the first time since 1985, the Heartbreakers tour sound has been regularly augmented by a pair of backup singers. English sisters Charley and Hattie Webb brought a new dimension to the stage through their extra layer of vocals. This new wrinkle to the Heartbreakers was especially important during a beautiful rendition of “Walls” and a consecutive trio of tracks from Wildflowers during the middle portion of the concert. After an extended version of “It’s Good To Be King” that blew away the audience, the group slowed the concert down with “Crawling Back to You” and “Wildflowers.”
After the Wildflowers suite, the band wove the catchy acoustics of “Yer So Bad” into the set before the Heartbreakers switched gears and reeled off a tremendous bunch of songs to close out the show. Led by 2010’s Led Zepplin-like “I Should Have Known It,” the group ended the first part of the evening with guitar-charged versions of Petty mainstays “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” After a brief break the band kicked into a version of “You Wreck Me” that even had keyboard player Benmont Tench jumping up and down as he and guitar player Mike Campbell traded solos. In a night filled with big chorus moments from two longtime rock ‘n roll staples, the Newark audience sang loudest with the Heartbreakers as they capped the night with “American Girl.”
The Prudential Center crowd was treated to a night of extraordinary musicianship. It would be difficult to find three guitar players with the abilities of Walsh, Petty, and Campbell under the same roof in any tour currently going. Tench and drummer Steve Ferrone are also highly sought-after musicians that have filled a long list of album credits for musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash. Both Walsh and the Heartbreakers clearly remain at the top of their game and show no signs of slowing down.
It is rare to go to an arena and enjoy a group where seemingly every song has a big chorus and even bigger guitar licks that are familiar to the entire audience. Sporting their most diverse and energetic setlist in a decade, the Heartbreakers are showing 40 years into their career that they are continuing their legacy as one of the truly great American bands.