The Wrigley Field debut of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was a long time coming, and it arrived under threat of storms. The Heartbreakers dodged the worst of it, creating the bulk of the evening’s thunder themselves under steady but light rain.
During Chris Stapleton’s opening set, however, the rain came down in buckets.
Chart-topping songwriter Stapleton opened the show with his rustic and authentic country sound, featuring material from 2015’s “Traveller” album and his recent sophomore effort “From a Room: Volume 1.” He closed with a cover of David Allen Coe’s “Tennessee Whiskey.”
Although the Heartbreakers’ first album arrived 41 years ago in 1976, the group’s juggernaut tour is billed as its 40th anniversary celebration. Fans were more than willing to overlook such a trivial discrepancy. Who needs math, when feasting on a menu of songs that have anchored the classic rock radio format since its inception?
“We’re going to treat tonight like it’s a big old double-sided album, and we’re gonna drop the needle all up and down it,” said Petty as the set gathered steam.
Petty and his faithful bandmates began with “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the group’s 1976 debut. The rain let up after an hour, but the hits never did. The career-spanning set list tapped recent material including “Forgotten Men” from 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye,” and took deep dives into solo albums “Full Moon Fever” and “Wildflowers.” Sharply-dressed in black vests and long sleeves, Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell took turns at the rim of the stage for big, tasty guitar solos during “Its Good to Be King.”
Petty and Campbell faced off to swap licks during “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” relishing the shimmer and jangle they’ve created side by side for so long. “I was going to say we’re having so much fun on this tour it ought to be illegal,” said Petty later. “But it is, in fact, illegal.”
There were notable omissions, simply as the by-product of having to choose among so much strong material. It was a shame to miss the wistful jangle-pop of “The Waiting” from 1981’s “Hard Promises” or a great deep cut like the brooding “Something Big” from the same album. The Heartbreakers made up for it by digging hard and exploring fare like the psychedelic “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” featuring Campbell’s liquid blues licks during a rowdy outro. Petty snarled through the recriminatory lyrics of “You Got Lucky.”
English folk duo the Webb Sisters provided background vocals, adding sparkle and signature harmonies to songs like “Free Fallin’.” Keyboardist Benmont Tench was masterful or understated, depending upon the requirements of each song. His elegant touch on the piano elevated “Crawling Back to You.” His towering gospel organ seemed to shake the stage during “Refugee,” as bassist Ron Blair anchored a mean groove.
Petty was in high spirits and had fun with his soggy friends in the crowd. “I’d like to come out there and hug everybody here,” he said. “Maybe not you, sir,” he added with a sly grin. “Mike will hug you.” Campbell stood behind and shook his head “no.”
The crowd may have been wet to the socks, but enthusiasm on the field and in the stands remained undampened. The sold-out audience out-sang the outfield’s enormous sound system during “Learning to Fly.”
“We’re gonna turn the amplifiers up really loud now,” said Petty as the band lashed into the Led Zeppelin-styled rocker “I Should Have Known It.” Campbell took his most ferocious solo of the evening, shredding the neck of his classic Gibson Les Paul to splinters.
Following raging set closer “Running Down a Dream,” Petty emerged for the encore dressed in a Cubs No. 40 jersey. “We came here first in 1977, and fell in love with the town,” he said. “Thank you so much for coming for 40 years.”
The show concluded with a spirited run through “American Girl.” After all these years, the song should qualify as a surrogate National Anthem. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, after all, are already recognized by stadiums full of people as a national treasure.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.
Rockin’ Around (With You)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
You Don’t Know How It Feels
You Got Lucky
I Won’t Back Down
Into the Great Wide Open
Don’t Come Around Here No More
It’s Good to Be King
Crawling Back to You
Learning to Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down a Dream
You Wreck Me