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Photo by Terry Steeves.

Bluesfest International Highlight: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

By Terry Steeves on July 17, 2017

Legendary performers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers closed out year number 24 of Ottawa Bluesfest with a 2-hour long show on the City Stage that drew large-scaled numbers, similar to Pink’s show a week ago. The band is currently on a North American tour in celebration of their eponymous debut album which kicked off their musical career 40 years ago. “I’m happy to be in Ottawa for a change!” shouted Petty as he saluted the crowd… and a long wait it has been for Ottawans since his last show at the Civic Centre in 1981. “We’re gonna look at this show like it’s one big LP, and we’re gonna drop the needle wherever we want!”

Legendary performers Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers closed out Bluesfest. Photo by Terry Steeves.

Legendary performers Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers closed out Bluesfest. Photo by Terry Steeves.

The band fittingly began with “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their first album and from there, pulled out an equal amount of favourites from both Petty’s solo and Heartbreakers material. “You feel like singing one?“ Petty teased before he resumed with “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’”, both from his first solo album “Full Moon Fever” (1989), which marked a turn towards a more polished and commercial sound to his music. The crowd, consisting of all ages, took over the vocals to much of Petty’s iconic library of heartland rock anthems. At times, all it took was a single opening chord to trigger immediate cheers of recognition. Petty seemed at ease and enjoyed himself onstage with his bandmates, as well as with the audience, sending out big smiles, waves, and thank yous throughout the night.

Founding member and guitarist Mike Campbell (left) with Tom Petty. Photo by Terry Steeves.

Founding member and guitarist Mike Campbell (left) with Tom Petty. Photo by Terry Steeves.

“Don’t Come Around Here No More” brought on hand-clapping and call and answer chants from the audience, seduced by the song’s droning beat. I loved the natural piano that rang through with its counter melody, the vocal harmonies that added lovely dimension, and the sudden shift into double-timed madness at the end with all instruments going full tilt.

Petty seemed at ease and enjoyed himself onstage with his bandmates, as well as with the audience, sending out big smiles, waves, and thank yous throughout the night.

Petty took some time to introduce his band members, who he considered to be his family. Mike Campbell (guitar), Benmont Tench (keys), and Ron Blair (bass) have been with Petty since the beginning, with the addition of Scott Thurston in 1991 (rhythm guitar, second keys), and one they call “the new guy” Steve Ferrone (drums), who has been with the band for 24 years. Backup vocalists Charley and Hattie Webb, who were formerly vocalists for Leonard Cohen, have also joined the band on tour.

Webb sisters, Charley and Hattie providing backup vocals for Tom Petty. Photo by Terry Steeves

Webb sisters, Charley and Hattie providing backup vocals for Tom Petty. Photo by Terry Steeves

The next few would follow from Petty’s second solo album “Wildflowers”, considered by many to have been his best work. “It’s Good To Be King” was a textured work of art that breathed with quiet parts and gigantic swells. Tench, surrounded by an array of keyboards, switched between the organic sounds of both piano and organ, and later Campbell brought things to a resounding finish with a ripping blues guitar solo. “Crawling Back To You”, which Petty introduced as one of his favourites from the album, was filled with beautiful strong harmonies by the girls. But it was the title track “Wildflowers” that, for me, captured the very essence of the honesty and artistry in his songwriting. Armed with his acoustic guitar, he sung with ease as he strummed out the song’s pretty country, folk two-stepping melody, accompanied by more gorgeous harmonies from the Webb sisters.

Photo by Terry Steeves.

Photo by Terry Steeves.

More hits like “Yer So Bad”, “Refugee”, and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” would gear up the audience’s vocal chords once again, and it seemed like the show was over as Petty and the band thanked the crowd and disappeared backstage. Swells of cheering began and the Bluesfest grounds were lit up in a sea of cell phones raised in the air. The band returned with encore songs “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl”, another from their debut album which brought the set around full circle. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a concert where everyone knew the words to virtually every song the performer played. But that’s the beauty and the brilliance of Tom Petty… his songs have touched a common vein around the world with their infectious, simple-structured melodies that convey simple messages of life‘s mysteries.


RBC Bluesfest runs from July 6–16, 2017 at LeBreton Flats. Visit ottawabluesfest.com for the lineup and schedule. Keep checking back for more Apt613 Bluesfest coverage and follow us on Instagram for the latest photos.


 

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