In a two-hour show that combined hits, covers and an uninterrupted chunk of their upcoming Mojo album, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers once again justified nearly 34 years of popular rock classicism in Oakland on Saturday night. Every new track evoked different early '70s sounds that predate the Heartbreakers' own formation, and most of their enduring FM staples rework styles that stretch back even further. But Petty and cohorts performed with both precision and commitment — a rare combination for a band of vets with a median age nearing 60.
Although he'll hit that milestone this fall, Petty certainly didn't look or sound his age. Like his Heatbreakers, he was dressed primarily in black, which in his case included a velvet suit with fat silver buttons that flanked his shins. Aside from his Grand Ole Opry-inspired fashion sense and the occasional shake of his thick hair mop, Petty remains a low-key entertainer. His sole concession to arena-rock showmanship was in leading a few call-and-response chants that nearly contradicted his lyrical content: A cheery string of "ohh-ohh-ohh"s broke the otherwise sulky mood of his 1985 MTV smash "Don't Come Around Here No More," yet the response that echoed through Oakland's nearly 20,000-capacity Oracle Arena proved his fans didn't mind the occasional mixed message.
From the chugging rhythms of set opener "Kings Highway" to a final encore of their Byrds-y early hit "American Girl," the Heatbreakers maintained an authoritative roar, and the Bay Area audience paid them back with equal enthusiasm. "That you're still here tonight means so much to me," he told them after "Good Enough," a moody Mojo track that evoked Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" during the verses and the climax from the Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" during its thunderous instrumental coda.
The evening's first new song, "Jefferson Jericho Blues," suggested the Allman Brothers' layered guitar leads, while the current radio cut, ""I Should Have Known It," hammered out heavy Led Zeppelin-esque riffs. Covers of Fleetwood Mac's early hit "Oh Well" and "Mystic Eyes," Van Morrison and Them's follow-up to "Gloria," further acknowledged the band's ties to rock's past.
The most satisfying songs of the evening came from the Gainesville, Florida-born rocker's own back catalog. Balancing and bracketing the five-song string of soon-to-be-released album tracks was a cross section of singes from Petty's first 13 years of hits. The Heartbreakers' very first one, "Breakdown," provoked a particularly enthusiastic response: "Come a little closer to me, babe," Petty drawled to the very vocal delight of his female fans. "Why don't you go ahead and give it to me?" he continued, and the women screamed louder. It takes a special kind of talent to make a song about acute depressive disorder seem sexy, and Petty's still got it.
"Listen to Her Heart"
"I Won't Back Down"
"Free Fallin' "
"Mary Jane's Last Dance"
"Drivin' Down to Georgia"
"Jefferson Jericho Blues"
"First Flash of Freedom"
"Running Man's Bible"
"I Should Have Known It"
"Learning to Fly"
"Don't Come Around Here No More"
"Runnin' Down a Dream"