The sun had already dipped below the lip of the 100-year-old baseball stadium when the sky opened and started dropping heavy tears on the heads of 40,000 people listening to Chris Stapleton pouring his heart out in the middle of his signature song “Tennessee Whiskey.” The cross-over country star treats vowels like interval vocal exercises, elongating and clipping them at will, imbuing every human emotion he can fit into a single passage. The song wore on, and the rain grew more intense. Stapleton exited, and one of the real dangers of attending an outdoor concert in Midwest America during the summer months was being realized.
Not that it mattered a bit to the tens of thousands standing in that hallowed field being soaked to the bone by the deluge from above. We had all gathered in this great American institution to pay our respects and be entertained by another great American institution. A little bit of rain wasn’t going to prevent us all from basking in the glow of one of the greatest songwriters our country has ever produced. Not when this might be our final chance to do so.
Tom Petty arrived onstage with his band The Heartbreakers maybe 45 minutes after Stapleton had run for drier quarters. He acknowledged the locale by invoking the sentiment of the great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters. “I feel the mojo working tonight,” Petty declared. “Is the mojo working out here?” It certainly must have, because the crowd roared with delight. The scion of Gainesville, Florida flashed that icon, toothy grin and then, just like on every other stop of this tour celebrating 40 years of the Heartbreakers, gave the signal to kick into track one, side one from their first self-titled album “Rockin’ Around (With You).”
Tom Petty is one of those rare artists that has transcended both genre and generation. He’s ubiquitous. His vast catalog of songs are woven into the fabric of our society as comfortably as the songbooks created by Guthrie, Dylan or Springsteen. “American Girl” feels just as familiar as “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain” or “This Land Is Your Land.” His music will live on long past the point he’s shuffled off this mortal coil.
While this latest tour might not be your final chance to experience the singular experience of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers live and in person, the opportunities are undeniably dwindling. “I’m thinking it may be the last trip around the country,” the singer told Rolling Stone just before the beginning of this latest run. “We’re all on the backside of our sixties. I have a granddaughter now I’d like to see as much as I can. I don’t want to spend my life on the road. This tour will take me away for four months. With a little kid, that’s a lot of time.”
Those are understandable, very human reasons for wanting to hang it up, but as a fan, it remains difficult, bordering on impossible to imagine what a world without Petty might look like. Then again, the same could have been said about Prince and David Bowie last year. Time is undefeated.
Petty’s prowess as a songwriter was driven home time and time again during the two-hours he spent in the outfield in Wrigley. It seemed like every song he played was an instantly recognizable hit. Each time he’d reach the chorus to favorites like “Free Fallin’” or “I Won’t Back Down,” the horde splayed out in front of him would drown out his iconic drawl with vocal-cord-fraying fury. “Heyyyyyyyy baby! There ain’t no easy way out!” Every person in that stadium seemed to know every word, and a sense of wonder and delight permeated the air throughout the gig.
Next to Petty, the other star of the show was his ride or die Mike Campbell. Along with keyboardist Benmont Tench, the guitar-playing wizard has remained a fixture in Petty’s life going all the way back to his earliest efforts with his Florida-based band Mudcrutch. During the show in Chicago, it typically devolved to Campbell to lend the songs an explosive energy — an extra oomph — that set them apart from their recorded versions. He came through time and time again, but never better than on the Wildflowers standout, “It’s Good To Be King.” The melancholic deep cut was slipped in during the middle of the set, and stretched out into a truly epic jam. With sunburst Les Paul in hand, Campbell waxed and wailed poetic for minutes at a time, widening eyeballs and breaking open skulls with his fretboard mastery.
The main set finally ended around 10:30 PM and Tom and his band made their way to the wings. The stands wrapped around the building turned into a galaxy of stars as the house lights laid low and people raised their phones high in the air, pleading for an encore. When the Heartbreakers re-emerged, the scream of relief was deafening. Petty, clad in an open Cubs jersey with his name and the number 40 stitched onto the back basked in the adulation.
They played “You Wreck Me,” then ended it all with “American Girl.” We all hoped to make it last all night, but of course it couldn’t. It was all we could do to gaze in wonder at the explosion of fireworks in the sky as he made his regretful final exit back into the great wide open.