From the moment I saw Tom Petty’s first Boston show at the Jazz Workshop in the Back Bay in 1976, I was hooked. He and his band the Heartbreakers played a full-throttle set before a meager, late-night crowd of about eight people, yet you just knew they were destined for greatness. I then saw him many times through the years when I covered music for the Globe (the only tour I missed was at Fenway Park in 2014). I was devastated by his death on Monday, but formulated this Top Five concert list to rekindle memories — or at least provide some new ones — for the rabid Petty loyalists around town. As Tom once told an Orpheum crowd in 1979, “Boston is Rock City U.S.A.” He knew it and we knew it.
1976: Jazz Workshop. It was an odd booking to have Petty & Co. open for Al Kooper, who fronted a big-band jazz group at the time. Petty held nothing back and romped through his early, Byrds-inspired jangle featuring “American Girl.” I said hello to him afterward, and he was humble and happy that at least someone came to see him. He never exhibited any ego in the bunch of times I interviewed him later. He was a genuine, pure-spirited rocker, and that’s what people loved.
1979: Orpheum Theatre. Petty canceled two Orpheum dates leading up to this — once to play “Saturday Night Live,” the next because of throat problems — but he was worth waiting for. The peak was his wailing hit “Breakdown” (he credited Boston station
WBCN for playing it first) where he fell to his knees James Brown-style. And he cemented his reputation for performing great cover songs, namely Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” and the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Alright.”
1986: Great Woods. By this time the Heartbreakers had already headlined the Worcester Centrum. They were big, but Bob Dylan persuaded them to be his backup band. Petty’s opening set rocked hard with a staunch cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star,” before he and the Heartbreakers teamed beautifully with Dylan on everything from “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to Ray Charles’s “Unchain My Heart.” They played two nights with him, and the second was best. As Dylan told the audience, “Anybody would sound good with this band.” So true.
1999: Tweeter Center. Rising rock ticket prices were in the news, but Petty kept his tickets under $50 (and he didn’t use sponsors, either). The band did ecstatic versions of “Jammin’ Me” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” plus debuted a new song, “Swingin’,” about a woman who “went down swingin’ like “Glenn Miller . . . Sammy Davis . . . Sonny Liston.” And the encore was Van Morrison’s “Gloria.” As good as it gets.
2017: TD Garden. Petty played more excellent shows at the Tweeter Center in 2001 and 2005, but his last Boston date at the TD Garden in July was another zenith for him. It was a greatest hits show, but he paused to perform several songs from his “Wildflowers” album. His stagecraft was at an all-time high. It seems impossible to believe this was the last time we’d see him.
I’m left with a timeless quote running around my head from an interview with Petty in 1981: “Our strongest asset is that we’ve always been into this only for the music and nothing else. I don’t even read Billboard.”