In late November, just weeks after the 40th anniversary of their debut record landing on record store shelves, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers got together at their rehearsal space in L.A's San Fernando Valley to jam, taking the first step toward their just-announced 2017 tour. "We mainly did cover songs," says Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench. "When we get together we tend to do a lot of Chicago-style blues songs, but Tom was also making up songs on the spot. We were shaking off the rust."
The rust had built up after a three-year hiatus from touring (their longest break in 25 years), but the band will make up for lost time on April 20th when they kick off their 40th anniversary tour at Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Center, staying on the road steadily through late August playing a mixture of arenas, festivals and the occasional stadium. "I'm thinking it may be the last trip around the country," says Petty. "It's very likely we'll keep playing, but will we take on 50 shows in one tour? I don't think so. I'd be lying if I didn't say I was thinking this might be the last big one. We're all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I'd like to see as much as I can. I don't want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that's a lot of time."
As recently as June, Petty was planning to release a deluxe version of his 1994 solo LP Wildflowers next year, containing an entire bonus disc of unreleased material, and playing it all on a special tour. "The 40th anniversary kind of got in the way of that," he says. "I looked at the tour they booked and it was all big places. The Wildflowers tour will have to be in smaller places because it's just a lot of quiet and a lot of it is acoustic. It would be wrong to focus on one album for that tour."
Without a new LP to promote, the band plans to dig deep into their archives next year, hitting each of their 13 albums and Petty's three solo discs. From the late Nineties through the early 2010s the group leaned heavily on their many hits when they toured, along with a smattering of tunes from whatever their latest album was at the moment, but in 2013 they did a run of special theater shows at the Beacon in New York and the Fonda in Los Angeles that dramatically broadened the scope of their repertoire. "If I was a fan and they didn't play 'American Girl' or 'Free Fallin'' I'd be disappointed," says Petty. "But I want to continue with the vibe we had at the theater shows where we represented plenty of popular songs, but also give the longtime fans some really deep stuff, and we can change the show as much as we want from night to night."
While nothing is definite at the moment, Petty is into the idea of playing the title track to 1978's You're Gonna Get It (unplayed since New Year's Eve 1978) and the mournful "Room at the Top" from 1999's Echo, while Tench wants to play the title track to Echo, the Damn the Torpedoes classic "Louisiana Rain" and "Stories We Could Tell," an Everly Brothers song they released on their 1985 live album Pack Up the Plantation. Guitarist Mike Campbell, meanwhile, hopes to convince the group to break out break out "Fooled Again," "Luna" and "Hurt," all of which come from their first two albums.
Excluding drummer Stan Lynch, who left the Heartbreakers in 1994 after years of tension with Petty, everyone on those early records remains in the band. "We grew up together and we love playing together more than than playing with anybody else," says Campbell. "We've been through so much together. I don't want to name names, but a lot of bands go out together and they just don't like each other. They're making a lot of money and just clocking in. We've never been like that, and we have a chemistry and a telepathy between us that is really rare."
Many of the deep cuts they hope to revive on the 40th anniversary tour are in regular rotation on Tom Petty Radio, a SiriusXM channel that has occupied much of Petty's time since the end of the last Heartbreakers tour in 2014. Unlike Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett and Garth Brooks, all of whom have their own channels on the satellite radio service, Petty personally oversees the station, recording song intros at his own studio and even hosting the interview show Tom Talks to Cool People where he's interviewed everyone from Micky Dolenz of the Monkees to Doors drummer John Densmore. "I'm in hog heaven with the radio thing," Petty says. "I want to have the best rock & roll station in the world."
Before rehearsals begin for the tour in March Petty plans on producing an album for original Byrds bassist Chris Hillman, but once that wraps all of his attention will turn to the live show, which will feature opening act Joe Walsh at many of the U.S. dates. His proclamation that this may be the last major tour is likely to generate a lot of attention among fans and the press, but even his own bandmates are dubious of the claim. "I've been hearing him say that of the past 10 years," says Campbell. "It would be a shame to stop playing while we're at the peak of our abilities." Tench feels the same way. "I don't know what's on Tom's mind," he says, "because he certainly hasn't said that to me."
West Coast dates have yet to be announced, and as of now the only European date is a single show at London's Hyde Park. "It's just a matter of blocking out the time to go all the way over there and getting enough money to make it worthwhile with all our expenses," says Campbell. "But I love going to Europe. I think we'll probably go there again before we hang it up." There's also the matter of recording another studio album. "We'll get around to that when we can," says Petty. "But I'm in no hurry to do that now. I do have a contract where I owe my label a record every couple of years, but I always go over that and they always indulge me. I bring them over and show them what I'm working on so they know I'm not just doing nothing. They're understanding."
At the very least, Petty is already thinking about bringing Wildflowers on the road after the 40th anniversary tour winds down. "I started talking about that the other day and got a loud, 'Shut up!'" he says. "Every time I bring it up it hits a wall somewhere. But we're done in August. After that, it's not out of the question I'd get the box set together and take it on the road to theaters before the end of the year." The Heartbreakers are excited about the prospect. "I'd be more interested in an Echo tour than a Wildflowers one," Tench says with a laugh. "But I love the idea of a Wildflowers tour. I think it's brilliant. There's just something about that record. Rick [Rubin]'s influence made it so spare and every little lick meant something. It was a very special record."
In the meantime, they simply need to simply get though the 40th anniversary tour. "We're very aware that time is finite," says Petty. "At the end of the year we'll say, 'What do you feel like doing?' Then we'll figure out where to go next."