Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers had broken a lot of local hearts over the decades, since the group had never rocked Little Rock — or North Little Rock, for that matter — but the band made up for lost time Saturday night at Verizon Arena.
The sold-out crowd of 14,138 (about 40 sad fans were turned away) roared its approval at most every song and move by Petty, and the rest of his band, especially guitarist Mike Campbell, who traded hot licks with Petty on several songs, in the manner of the legendary duets of Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. And then there was keyboardist Benmont Tench, who turned a few songs into the coolest tunes since Steve Winwood’s Traffic was around.
Bassist Ron Blair, drummer Steve Ferrone and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston ably backed the three original Heartbreakers (with Blair having been present at the beginning, and having returned after a long hiatus.) The staging was almost old-style auditorium, with few frills to distract from the solid rock on display.
Petty, still boyish at 61, expressed his amazement at his reception and promised to return, which would seem to a wise thing to do, since thunderous applause accompanied his every move, beginning with the band’s first song, “Listen to Her Heart,” and continuing through 18 more songs over almost two hours.
There were the big hits, such as “I Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” “Running Down a Dream” and ‘Refugee,” but there were plenty of more obscure songs that never got much radio play, such as “You Wreck Me,” “Takin’ My Time,” “Spike” and “Good Enough,” plus a nice version of The Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care.”
“Melinda” was a powerful statement of the band’s level of communication, and the band roared toward a stunning encore of two songs: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “American Girl,” and no one expected more from these spent road warriors.
Opening act Regina Spektor had nearly 45 minutes to showcase her piano and vocal talents, but much of her set consisted of songs from a new album a month away from being released. Recalling the intimate vibe of Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, the Russian-born Spektor’s best-known song, “(They Made a Statue of) Us,” was warmly received.