Among other highlights of this year’s JazzFest? Why, the premiere of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Fairgrounds, of course. That’s right: premiere. The band has played the city many times before but never in this setting, and while I’m not saying I had a hand in their headlining this coming Saturday, I’m, well, er – - - that’s exactly what I’m saying. About a year ago, I lamented in this very column the fact the band had never played the festival, among other national acts I hope will be corrected one day soon (insert robust coughs here overlaid with a hearty and throaty “Beck! Beck! Beck!”). And voila, a year later it’s happening. I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe in coincidences. And maybe just maybe it just might be a coincidence (if you believe in them), and if so, then just chalk me up as having my thumb on the pulse of what’s what and not the impetus for this gig.
You see, I am full on bonkers for Tom Petty – with and without - the Heartbreakers, always have been. I even formally mailed a high school graduation invitation to him; not surprisingly, he didn’t show. Back then I spun Full Moon Fever endlessly and prior to that was weaned on their MTV persona that in the 80s you’ll recall spawned some very memorable videos such as the futuristic stylings of ‘You Got Lucky’ and the coup de gras of all Alice in Wonderland riffs ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More.’ And as many know Tom Petty’s career and those of his Heartbreakers date back well before MTV and the 80s too. Yes indeed, the 70s! When rock n’ roll was largely overlooked if not widely dismissed. So as my appreciation for Tom and the band has grown over time their catalogue remains in my assessment nothing short of an American musical legacy and a Southern one at that.
The first time I saw Tom Petty play live and in person I drove over to Pensacola from New Orleans to catch him touring Wildflowers with Taj Mahal opening. I had floor seats I had scored through a VH1 promo, and well, it was a fantastic evening. As luck would have it and if memory serves the tour actually wrapped up its last leg in New Orleans with Pete Droge opening; I had the good fortune of catching this show too. I think it closed with an encore cover of ‘Gloria.’ It is important to note here that while Tom Petty has often played and recorded with the Heartbreakers, between his solo material, excursions with the Traveling Wilburys, and revisits to his past with Mudcrutch, his career possesses many facets and incarnations all often backed by a Rickenbacker and often sly, toothy drawl.
Enduring elements that remain the foundation for his songwriting center less on the political or popular and more in the vein of life and relationships. Effectively, could Tom Petty be the Godfather of Emo rock? Mmmaaayyyybbeee? Okay, not at first listen, but the storytelling that unfolds in his lyrics often reveal a sense of searching, loves lost and found, but always with a spirit of quest or adventure, with the possible indulgences that may enhance perceptions along the way. Speaking as a fan here less from the hits we are sure to enjoy on Saturday, I remain more hopeful we might be able to enjoy some album cuts, covers, or rare b-sides even. Ever hear ‘Girl on LSD’ (a b-side from the Wildflowers days)? How about ‘Louisiana Rain’ (from Damn The Torpedoes)? While these are but 2 possible candidates for Saturday’s setlist, the greater likelihood comes in the form of covering a song from The Band as a nod to the passing of Levon Helm, methinks. We shall see… (Are you still reading, Tom?)
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and the Du Mois gallery on Freret Street and father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also writes an occasional real-estate blog at villererealty.com and shares his family’s adventures via pedicab on Facebook and Twitter.