Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hit the PPL Center on Tuesday night and delivered a stellar performance in the newly broken-in arena. That there were still tickets available the day of the show was a bit of a shock, but judging by the number of empty seats in the house, the concert was nearly sold out.
“Allentown, at last!” Petty said to the crowd. He’s probably forgot that he played here a quarter of a century ago, judging by his comment that he couldn’t remember 1991, when he released “Into the Great Wide Open,” the third song in his set. Although Petty’s days of writing radio-ready classic rock hits are over, his new material displayed a garage rock-inspired, carefree delivery and was fresh and defiant in a line-up with many older hits.
“You’re just amazing, aren’t ya? Ya feel like singing?” was how Petty introduced “I Won’t Back Down,” garnering the first large sing-along of the evening and rolled right into “Free Fallin’.” The best song of the night came with “Learning to Fly”, with Petty handing over singing duties to the crowd. It was easily one of the best moments in the arena’s early history.
The biggest low point of the show came during “Shadow People,” where drawn out improvisations made the song drag on far too long and left many in the crowd with deflated excitement. The band quickly recovered with “I Should Have Known It,” featuring a scorching solo from guitarist Mike Campbell, who displayed superb musicianship throughout the entire set. The only other disappointment of the night was not seeing Steve Winwood join Petty on stage as he did the previous night in Philadelphia.
It’s no secret that Tom Petty is getting old, and despite his disheveled look, his vocals still sounded great, although he can’t display the range that he could in his younger years. He closed out the main set on a high note with “Refugee” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” leaving the crowd cheering for more for quite a while. When the band came back on stage they launched into “You Wreck Me” which had Petty dancing on stage, making the crowd scream. This puts Petty in the rare pantheon of performers over 60 who can shake their ass to a crowd and still draw cheers.
The band finished out the night with the predictable “American Girl,” giving everyone what they wanted to hear, despite an oddly large contingent leaving before the last few songs. Petty showed that despite his age, he doesn’t have to play a set full of old singles and hits. While his new album is a edgier, he didn’t reinvent his sound in such a way that alienates old fans. While songs like “You Don’t Know How It Feels” were obviously missing, it was nice to hear the new stuff performed with the same intensity.
As for opener Steve Winwood? When I first walked into the arena not long before his set start I couldn’t believe the amount of empty seats. Did people really not give a shit about Steve Winwood? As he took the stage, those seats filled in fast. Winwood strolled through nine songs, alternating between guitar and piano. Winwood, like Petty, still sounded fantastic. His classic cover of “Them Changes” killed and drew loud cheers from the otherwise dormant crowd. The apex of his set was clearly “Higher Love,” which upstaged even a lot of the Petty set in its momentousness. There’s few, if any, performers that could’ve been such a perfect opener for the night.
Shows like this are fantastic for this arena. They’re too big to feel true. While the PPL Center’s operators were clearly bringing in huge acts to show market potential for the shiny new venue, big shows like this are extremely feasible for the future. Tour routings frequently leave empty dates between shows to add additional shows in the same or outer markets if a first booking is selling well. Even with Petty playing for Philly the night before he came very close to selling out Allentown. This bodes well for Allentown, and even if we don’t get shows the first time around, artist will frequently make second rounds hitting smaller markets later in their tour. With any hope we’ll keep seeing this caliber of act come through the area and not settle for performers who will half-fill a 10,000 person venue.