MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — What could be a more appropriate way to spend Independence Day than rocking out underneath a full moon with the man who wrote “American Girl”?
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers offered up some musical fireworks in front of a capacity crowd of 24,000 at the Marcus Amphitheatre Wednesday, the first sell-out on the main stage of this year’s 10-day Summerfest. While the show was short on surprises, Petty and his longtime backing group — “Quality since 1976,” the tour shirts read — delivered two hours of classics from their quarter-century career.
The t-shirts in the crowd — a Crosby, Stills and Nash shirt on a middle-aged beer belly, a Damned shirt on a tattooed teen and more than a few tattered Rolling Stones shirts — indicated just how broad Petty’s audience is these days. Despite his unwavering appeal to baby boomers like himself, the Florida-born rocker drew at least as many twentysomethings.
Kicking off with a sly “Oh, baby” uttered from the dark stage, Petty and co. ripped into three of his signature hits — “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Breakdown” — before playing “Billy the Kid,” the night’s lone offering from his most recent album, 1999’s Echo.
The crowd reaction was strongest for tunes from the latter half of Petty’s career, radio hits such as “Free Fallin’ ” and “It’s Good to Be King,” which the band turned into an extended jam. Throughout the show, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and his slew of classic guitars provided the instrumental focal point, whether tossing out concise fills on “Into the Great Wide Open” or a soaring solo on “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
When Petty reached deeper into his catalog, back to “Here Comes My Girl” and “Even the Losers” from his 1979 breakthrough Damn the Torpedoes, or to “Too Much Ain’t Enough” from the previous year’s You’re Gonna Get It!, Petty and Campbell really came alive, all smiles as they traded licks on some of their harder-rocking tunes.
The show ran a clockwork-like two hours almost to the minute, ending with Petty wishing the crowd a happy Independence Day before roaring, fittingly, into “American Girl.”
Jackson Browne opened the show, and though it was odd seeing the former arena headliner relegated to the warm-up slot, Browne made the best of his hour-long set. Though he could have easily filled the time with nothing but hits, he mixed lesser-known tracks like “Miles Away” from 1993’s I’m Alive and the title track from 1989’s World in Motion in with radio staples like “Running on Empty” and “Boulevard.”
The Petty/Browne bill will stay on the road through July 21 (see “Jackson Browne Joining Tom Petty Tour” ).