Last night at Petty Fest – now in its fifth year – an eclectic bunch of musicians, actors and comedians did justice to the music and spirit of Tom Petty, creating an experience that was equal parts concert and celebration. A diverse group that included Norah Jones, Will Forte and Kings of Leon’s Nathan Followill each took turns putting their own mark on Petty’s impressive catalog, backed by a house band led by Rolling Stone contributing editor Austin Scaggs, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom.
The night was pure Petty, with all the performers making it clear from the start that they were just as unapologetically fond of classics like “Even The Losers” and “Refugee” as the sold out crowd. SNL alum Forte provided one of the night’s first highlights with his hilariously distinct, half-joking/half-serious lead vocals on “Learning To Fly.” “Every song is my favorite song. I watched all the music videos on MTV when I was a kid,” Forte said after his performance, “He writes these hits, but it’s like he’s not even trying to, they’re just songs he likes.”
As the festivities rolled on, Rolling Stone Choose the Cover Contest winners the Sheepdogs brought their retro Southern swagger to Petty’s 1976 staple, “Breakdown,” and Arrested Development actress Alia Shawkat surprised everyone with her beautifully raspy rendition of “Won’t Back Down.” Jones lent her talents mostly in the form of backing vocals, but she took the lead alongside actor Justin Long to sing “Learning To Fly.” The Strokes’ Fabrizio Moretti and Followill also made appearances on drums on “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and “Last Dance With Mary Jane,” respectively.
Petty Fest culminated with all of the performers crowding the small stage for an old-fashioned sing-along to “Free Fallin’,” with folksy singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins leading the unruly bunch of Petty diehards. Not all musicians in attendance were there to perform, however. Some chose to appreciate the gathering as fans, including Regina Spektor, who gushed about Petty after the show, “He writes these songs that make you think you could write them, but you couldn’t.”