It was a long day, livin’ in Pasadena. And it was the perfect way to celebrate the 40-year career of American Boy, festival favorite, and all-around national treasure Tom Petty, who headlined Saturday with a two-hour, greatest-hits set on the Oaks Stage.
We’re talking about Pasadena, California’s inaugural Arroyo Seco fest, held June 24 and 25 at the Rose Bowl-adjacent Brookside golf course: a family- and foodie-friendly affair offering chef-curated picnic baskets, craft cocktails, cake kabobs, and poke bowls along with progressive kiddie activities like punk-rock jewelry-making and folk-rock music lessons. But the main attraction was Petty and his Heartbreakers, whose decade-spanning show brought together fans of all ages.
“I feel a lot of mojo in this place,” Petty said with a grin as he hit the stage, perhaps referring to the Heartbreakers’ 12th studio album, Mojo, released in 2010. But for his opening number, Petty went all the way back “the first song on the first album we ever did,” 1976’s “Rockin’ Around (With You),” as vintage shots of his young, lank-haired band playing Old Grey Whistle Test and L.A.’s Whisky A Go Go in the late ‘70s scrolled on the video screens behind him.
This set the proper nostalgic tone for the evening, as Petty declared, “We thought tonight we’d look at our 40 years like it’s one side of a big record, and we’re gonna drop the needle up and down it.” And Petty dug deep during his set, like when he played “Into the Great Wide Open” live for the first time since 1992 and quipped, “We’re going to try one here that we haven’t played in about 30 years — and by that, I mean we haven’t rehearsed it, either.” Petty and the impeccable musicians of Heartbreakers didn’t miss a beat, of course.
In between hits, Petty gushed affectionately — and adorably — about his longtime bandmates, saying, “I’ve been running around with these guys for most of my life, and we’re having such fun on this tour.” He laughed about his first meeting in 1970 with guitarist Mike Campbell (with whom he first played in the pre-Heartbreakers group Mudcrutch) at a “sketchy-looking audition space” where Campbell showed up with a “$90 crappy Japanese guitar” and failed to impress at first. “I thought we might better make an excuse and leave — but then he plugged that thing in and did ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ and I said, ‘Man, you’re gonna be in my band forever,’” Petty reminisced. Petty also proudly and rightfully declared keyboardist Benmont Tench “the best,” though he admitted he naively didn’t realize how lucky he was to have Tench in the lineup back when Mudcrutch were first starting out. And he jokingly introduced drummer Steve Ferrone as the “new guy,” since Ferrone has “only been in the band for 23 years.” (Side note: A couple truly new additions to the Heartbreakers’ lineup, vivacious British backup singers the Webb Sisters — who used to tour with Leonard Cohen — fit right in, lending their stellar sibling harmonies to Petty’s many classics.)
Petty and his comrades kept the hits coming, as fans lit up for the marijuana anthems like “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels”; sang along with the SoCal shout-outs to Reseda, the Valley, and Ventura Blvd. in “Free Fallin’”; and cheered for the finale of “American Girl” as pop-art illustrations of the Statue of Liberty appeared onscreen.
Petty dominated the day — many festivalgoers arrived early, practically toting camping gear, and staked out prime spots near the main stage; additionally, the other two stages were dark during Petty’s 8:30-10:30 p.m. time slot – but earlier Saturday, acts old and new brought nostalgia plus a ton of soul. One afternoon highlight included actor Jeff Goldblum, backed by his Mildred Snitzer Orchestra, playing Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk (“That hot jazz that all the kids are crazy for!” Goldblum noted dryly) and a bossa nova instrumental of Petty’s “American Girl.” (Goldblum then invited spectators in the sweltering Willow Stage tent back to his place for a aftershow pool party — presumably jokingly, although he was so charming, we were ready to take him up on the offer.) And over on the Sycamore Stage, Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene, joined by Metric’s Emily Haines, offered their own party-ready ‘80s cover with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.
Elder jazz/soul statesmen like vibraphonist Roy Ayers and multi-instrumentalist Bennie Maupin (both age 76), Stax Records legend William Bell (fresh off his Grammy night duet with Gary Clark Jr.), 83-year-old British bluesman John Mayall, and New Orleans pioneers the Meters also delivered… and then seemingly unofficially passed the torch when 28-year-old rock ‘n’ soul goddess Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes, one of the finest young bands working the festival circuit today, played a stunning sundown set full of heart, grit, and the kind of stratospheric vocals that most American Idol or Voice contestants would sell their souls to possess.
But the most touching soul moment came during 68-year-old R&B dynamo Charles Bradley’s afternoon set on the Sycamore Stage with His Extraordinaires. Bradley was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year, but the former James Brown impersonator and Extraordinary showman has always been a survivor — he struggled with illiteracy and poverty for decades before hooking up with Daptone Records and finally releasing his first album, No Time for Dreaming, in 2011 at age 63. And as he tearfully thanked fans for their support (“I received so many cards!”), he triumphantly announced, “I. Beat. The. Cancer.” The crowd whooped as Bradley, a bit thinner but still looking healthy and like a star, proceeded to perform with the energy of a man a third his age.
Arroyo Seco Weekend continued Sunday with a more alt-rock-centric lineup, featuring the Shins presenting their own “American Girl” tribute and Weezer giving their own nod to the ’80s by hitting the Oaks Stage dressed as Guns N’ Roses.