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Tom Petty: 10 Great Performances

From classic Heartbreakers gigs to duets with Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan and Axl Rose

“Unless you’ve done it, you can’t understand what it is,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone of the touring life earlier this year, in what would be his final interview with the magazine. “And if you’re not really experienced, you will fall.” During his four-decade-plus career, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer never shied away from the road. But last year even he was starting to see the end of the tunnel. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking this might be the last big one,” he told RS. But Petty performed nearly until the very end: He played his last show at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25th, only one week prior to his death. Here’s our rundown of some of his best moments onstage. 

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“Free Fallin'” With Axl Rose (1989)

Thanks to the gargantuan success of Full Moon Fever, when Tom Petty arrived at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards he was undeniably one of the hottest musical acts on the planet. So were Guns N’ Roses, whose Appetite for Destruction had made a huge impact a few years before. It was a mega-surprise then when at the end of the night GN’R singer Axl Rose joined Petty and the Heartbreakers for “Free Fallin'” before Petty and Rose closed out the night with a legendary rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel.”

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“Runnin’ Down a Dream” (1991)

Having cooked up magic together with Full Moon Fever, Petty wrangled that album’s producer, Jeff Lynne, to join the Heartbreakers in the studio for what became Into the Great Wide Open. The 1991 album’s eponymous tour was captured on the rare out-of-print VHS release Take the Highway Live. As captured during two nights in November 1991 in Reno, Nevada, and Oakland, California, the tour’s set lists were heavy on material from the band’s recent album but also included a healthy dose of Full Moon Fever cuts including a wicked take on “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” 

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“Swingin'” (1999)

“Swingin'” arrived on 1999’s Echo, a depressed-sounding album that followed the collapse of Petty’s marriage and one of his biggest commercial flops to date, but the third single, during which Petty compares a relationship to a boxing match, remains one of the singer’s strongest deep cuts. “Swingin'” appeared nearly every night on the Echo tour, but Petty wouldn’t trot it out again until this past April at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. 

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“Learning to Fly” With Stevie Nicks (2006)

For their first hometown show in 13 years, and in celebration of their 30th anniversary as a band, Petty and the Heartbreakers brought along a film crew to Gainesville to capture all the revelry for what became the documentary film, Live From Gatorville. The night’s set list spanned their entire career, and included a cover of the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man.” But it was a Stevie Nicks cameo that made headlines. Introducing her as “the band’s little sister,” Petty brought out the Fleetwood Mac singer for several songs, including a cover of the early Mac classic “Oh Well,” the pair’s iconic duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” and “Learning to Fly.”

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“Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (2013)

Rather than trot out the hits like most musicians his age, in 2013 Petty made it his mission over a series of 11 shows at New York’s Beacon Theater L.A.’s Fonda Theatre to build his concerts around rarities. He performed “Rebels,” “Wildflowers” and “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me), but one of the biggest surprises was “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” a Traveling Wilburys tune he penned with Bob Dylan. “No one has ever done it. So I just thought, ‘This would be interesting to try,'” Petty said shortly after the gigs. Of its original conception the singer recalled Wilburys bandmates George Harrison and Jeff Lynne thinking the song was “just too American,” so him and Dylan “just sat there for most of the afternoon, and then we edited it down the next day.”

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“American Girl” (2017)

In a sadly fortuitous move, Petty and the Heartbreakers billed this past summer’s 40th-anniversary tour as their last big tour. They certainly made the most of the opportunity: The band, in top-notch form, tore through a monumental set, typically starting out with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first song on their debut album, and always ending with an encore performance of “American Girl.” The final gig ended with an extended instrumental coda and a bow. Even to the end, Petty was a consummate showman. “If I was a fan and they didn’t play ‘American Girl’ or ‘Free Fallin,” I’d be disappointed,” he told Rolling Stone.

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