Here's the thing about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 40th Anniversary Tour: No one is taking you, the fan, for granted. Your time will be respected, and you're going to get your money's worth.
From opener Joe Walsh -- a veteran rocker who would snap every guitar string should it thrill ye -- to Heartbreakers hits showcasing one of rock 'n' roll's most consistently well-written and energetic catalogs, this tour aims to please. It might, after all, be "the last big one." At least that's what 66 year-old Petty told Rolling Stone in December.
Petty and his band of whimsically-clad men took the stage at American Airlines Center Saturday, a cohort of Mad Hatters in bright colored threads reminiscent of the unforgettable, unsettling music video for 1985's "Don't Come Around Here No More." Within three songs, they'd answered my biggest question:
They're good, obviously. But, are they nosebleed good?
Bear with me; arrogant as that statement may seem, I just mean choosing which shows to attend -- even from Very Important bucket-list artists -- requires a certain amount of calculus.
Petty was near the top of my wishlist, but it was fair to wonder if this show be entertaining enough to offset a high price-point and high hassle of fighting traffic, car and foot, through Victory Plaza on a Saturday night. Not every artist seems gracious, attuned or aware of his fans. Some fans don't want to stay up past 9 p.m. for a band that just isn't that into us.
On top of that, arena shows naturally forfeit the sonic delicacy of a "listening room" performance. Sure, I'd pay big bucks to see Willie Nelson at the Granada, but the location warranted it. There's not a bad seat in the house, and fans could hang on each note.
In a venue like the AAC, there's no guarantee of unobstructed views whether you're seated on the floor or in the rafters. On any given night, you might find yourself watching most of the show on a big screen high above the stage. Even with artists of Petty's caliber, it can be tempting to go the "let's not and say we did" route with a pair of stretchy pants, one's libation of choice and a concert DVD at home.
So, ultimately, we're talking about an experience only a select number of artists can pull off particularly well. Is Petty's live show Arena Worthy?
I'd sacrifice a whole paycheck, or at least half of one, to relive Saturday night's Dallas stop, the second on the Heartbreakers' 40th anniversary tour. I'd even leave the warm embrace of my AXS TV couch cocoon for it.
Praising Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is hardly revolutionary.
There's little need to delve deeply into the band's musical proficiency or the unusual qualities that make the troupe so irresistible. They look odd. They sound odd. They make music that could, on paper, seem unoriginal: roots rock, well-worn variations on an established American theme but that twists and turns its way through time, feeling as interesting, young and rebellious some 20, 30 or, yes, 40 years after its composition.
Yes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are beloved fan favorites for good reason; no need to hear that from me. Instead, I'll pose questions:
If a band makes it to 40 years...
Is there a statue of limitations on the "don't be that guy" law? Or, say, a loophole? For instance, what is the social acceptability for wearing a shirt from a band that members used to be in? (Shout-out to the dude in Mudcrutch gear. He doesn't scare easy.)
What other magical items are in that treasure chest?
Spoiler alert: Early into the set, Petty went over to a comically large treasure chest conspicuously placed stage right. Upon opening it, he slowly, teasingly pulled out a hat (like this one) and held it high over his head like a sacred talisman. Donning it, he twirled around, arms outstretched as the band segued into "Don't Come Around Here No More." These are moves that make Petty an incredible frontman; he's dramatic and silly without ever seeming disingenuous or that he's trying too hard. He's a serious musician who doesn't seem to take himself too seriously.
At the end of the song -- following an intense laser and strobe production -- Petty made as if he were going to place the hat back in the chest. Obviously, he instead tossed it into the crowd. This is a thing that should, no doubt, be expected at future stops as the young tour continues.
To last night's lucky recipient, one wonders: Girl, what are you going to do with that thing? Wear it? Hang it on your bedroom wall? Get your own treasure chest for it?
Why doesn't Ron dress like the other Heartbreakers?
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have a distinct sartorial style. It's a little bit carnival, a little bit pirate. Bassist Ron Blair -- an original Heartbreaker who, after a 20 year break from touring, rejoined the band on the road in 2002 -- wasn't wearing a silky vest or round sunglasses.
I'll forgive him; Blair's a critical and, for my money, underrated element of the Heartbreakers' musical success. Those thudding bass lines are a large part of what makes the catalog so compulsively danceable. Still, what's the deal with the muted colors and toned down threads, Ron?
"The girls are crazy about the gray hair," Petty said of Blair while introducing the band. "He's done really well with that..." he quipped.
Oh. Well, when you've got something that works...
Who was that ... first guy?
Walsh did everything he could to steal the show before Petty and company even arrived. Leaning into his whammy bar, scatting through his Talk Box and futzing endlessly with effects pedals, he looks like a man sustained not with food, air and water, but solely through the physical, tangible process of making music.
Musically, he's spot on. Vocally, his voice has aged notably, but one of advantage of an arena's less-than-stellar sound quality is that it covers a scar or two. As far as the 69 year old's showmanship, well: He's not Instagrammable, let's put it that way.
Walsh is an old school guitar player. His face is often down, laser-focus turned to his equipment, or he's otherwise crouching, bouncing, writhing, wincing, leaning or spinning too quickly to capture a good photo. Hoards of fans learned this the hard way, smart phones aloft as they attempted in vain to capture a moment of the darting performance. (Or maybe it was just me?)
Recall, we're talking about the opening act here. If you "have to" wait for a headliner, Walsh is the warmup you want. After his lengthy set, fans around me jokingly (but not entirely) called for an encore. One even turned and asked a friend, "Who was that guy? He's incredible!"
But, seriously folks, that guy was Joe Walsh. And, he's making new fans a half century into his own legendary career.