What turned out to be Tom Petty’s New Orleans farewell very nearly didn’t happen.
Petty, who died Monday of cardiac arrest at age 66, and the Heartbreakers were slated to close out the first Sunday of the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on April 30. But the threat of severe weather delayed the festival’s opening that morning. Rain pounded the tents, stages and food booths as lightning crackled overhead. Dozens of acts, essentially everything prior to 3 p.m., were canceled.
Rather than scrap the entire day, festival organizers opted to wait and see if some of the schedule could be salvaged. As it turned out, every headliner except Pitbull performed.
Thus, local fans got one last look at one of the most dependably solid American rock 'n' roll bands of the past 40 years.
Petty’s Jazz Fest stop was an early date on the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour, a tour that concluded Sept. 25 with the third of three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. That last show was exactly a week before Petty was discovered unconscious at his house in Malibu.
I saw Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers a handful of times over the years — at the UNO Lakefront Arena in 1991; at the 2006 Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, when Stevie Nicks sat in for much of the set; and at Jazz Fest in 2012 and again this year. The Heartbreakers were at their best when they strayed from the script and improvised, as during their 2012 Jazz Fest appearance. Though less potentially explosive than fellow American rock institution Aerosmith, they were also less uneven. The Heartbreakers always at least did the job, faithfully servicing their tidy, perfectly constructed radio singles.
Such was the case at this year’s Jazz Fest. Looking like an especially grizzled pirate, Petty announced his intention to “drop the needle” — a vinyl record reference — on songs from throughout his 40-year career.
First up was “Rockin’ Around With You,” the opening song on the Heartbreakers’ self-titled 1976 debut. Over the next two hours, Petty and the band zigzagged around their catalog, stopping at many hits: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” the keyboard-heavy “You Got Lucky,” “Free Fallin’.” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” moved from psychedelic chorus to open-road conclusion.
Mike Campbell’s guitar has always been integral to the Heartbreakers’ sound. His signature riffs and solos were all in place, dressed up with extra flourishes and extended passages. His slide guitar snaked across “I Won’t Back Down”; elsewhere, he and Petty locked in on matching guitars.
Late in the set, they delivered a chill “Learning to Fly” and a tidy “Yer So Bad.” Petty relished “Refugee,” and the entire band caught the spirit of “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” It was already well past the festival’s 7 p.m. curfew when they left the stage, only to return for a final sprint through “American Girl.”
Given Petty’s shocking death this week, fans should be thankful that the Jazz Fest show happened at all. The monsoon clearly cut down on the crowd's size, but thousands of die-hards turned out, anyway.
With Petty’s demise and, presumably, the Heartbreakers’, as well, we’ve lost yet another of the Great American Rock Bands from the era when rock bands were popular music’s driving, dominant force. The Allman Brothers Band is gone. The Eagles are a lesser band without Glenn Frey.
On Tuesday, Bob Seger, 72, postponed the remainder of the Silver Bullet Band’s fall tour so he could deal with troublesome vertebrae.
The future of Aerosmith, whose members have already survived a litany of health scares and self-inflicted abuse, appears uncertain, once again, following 69-year-old singer Steven Tyler’s recent medical emergency in South America. The remainder of the band’s tour was canceled so he could fly home for treatment of an undisclosed affliction.
Bruce Springsteen has settled into Broadway but will presumably resurrect the E Street Band once again. And at the Gretna Heritage Festival on Sunday, 64-year-old Pat Benatar appeared, thankfully, to be in good shape.
She released her debut album “In the Heat of the Night” in August 1979, seven weeks ahead of Petty’s classic “Damn the Torpedoes.” Both acts were arena and FM radio playlist staples for the next decade.
Petty kept filling arenas right up to the end. Benatar generally plays much smaller venues these days. But just like Petty at Jazz Fest, she was greeted at Gretna Fest by enthusiastic fans who had waited out the rain.
Her straightforward presentation featured her husband and longtime songwriting partner, Neil Giraldo, on guitar and piano, a drummer and a bassist. (A few prerecorded parts replicated the studio flourishes on “We Belong” and other late-career singles.)
Facing a field littered with clumps of sodden white confetti from the previous night's Kiss spectacle, they banged out brash anthems — “All Fired Up,” “Promises in the Dark,” “You Better Run,” her anti-child abuse screed “Hell Is For Children” — with no frills, save Giraldo’s ragged-but-right guitar heroics and Benatar’s sunny anecdotes. The couple’s chemistry, after 38 years together, was apparent.
During the final charge through “Heartbreaker,” Giraldo segued into Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” It was one final guitar tour de force from the ever-shorter list of classic rock acts still capable of living up to their reputations.
With Petty’s passing, there’s one less.