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Mr. Mojo rising: Tom Petty.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Summertime Blues

By Kirsten Ferguson

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Crosby Stills and Nash

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 27

Watching Runnin’ Down a Dream, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich’s 2007 documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, you get the impression that the highly talented Petty is also a very lucky guy. His rise from Elvis-obsessed boy in Gainesville, Fla., to rock & roll superstar involved quite a few fortuitous events. Foremost was his good fortune early on to meet two prodigious musicians, pianist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell.

Of course Petty’s career hasn’t been without its ill-fated setbacks, including the 1987 fire that destroyed his ranch and the overdose death of Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein. But as fortunate overall as Petty was to hook up with Tench and Campbell, who became the musical foundation of the Heartbreakers, they were even luckier to hitch their stars to Petty.

Over his 35-year career, the guy has been a hit machine. During his live show, Petty rarely seems to disappoint, in part because the list of well-loved songs he has to work with is so long. And no matter what record he’s out selling—on the current tour it’s his latest release Mojo—the new stuff is sandwiched between barrages of hits.

Petty’s SPAC show on Friday was no exception, starting with an opening volley of Billboard-charting tracks spanning three decades: “Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin.’” Petty has a knack for writing songs that pack a world of feeling into deceptively simply lyrics. I haven’t heard “Listen to Her Heart” in the same way since the Onion’s A.V. Club published an inventory of classic Tom Petty opening lyrics, crediting the tune for the way it captures a decadent world with its first line: “You think you’re going to take her away/With your money and your cocaine.”

With four hits out of the way, Petty and the Heartbreakers then took a bluesy detour through “Oh Well,” a cover of Fleetwood Mac from their earlier incarnation as a Peter Green-led blues rock band. Dressed in jeans and a red silk shirt, his blond hair in its usual youthful shag but offset by a weathered-looking beard, Petty had fun with this one, running around the stage shaking maracas in his hands as Campbell wailed out on a smoking guitar solo.

“I’m feeling like a little rock & roll music. Let’s get down to some old rock & roll,” Petty announced before showcasing four songs from the blues-rock revisiting Mojo (“Jefferson Jericho Blues,” “Good Enough,” “Running Man’s Bible,” “I Should Have Known It”). Petty played “Learning to Fly” on acoustic guitar before returning to rock with a finale of “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Refugee.” There was an encore of “American Girl,” Petty’s signature closing tune, and the show was over too soon, it seemed.

Many fans, stymied by traffic jams outside the venue and ticket lines within, were still streaming into the amphitheater as Crosby, Stills and Nash played their opening set, filled with hits from the ‘60s iconoclasts. Graham Nash’s world-changing “Chicago” was a highlight, as was “Almost Cut My Hair,” sung David Crosby, now gray but still rocking some long locks. Still, it’s getting cliché to say it, but without Neil Young there’s just no edge there.

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