The Petty Archives

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Oh my my, oh hell yes!
By Joe Hunter
The Independent Florida Alligator - Friday, September 22, 2006

Gainesville hadn't seen Tom Petty in 13 years. No wonder the crowd wouldn't back down.

Homecoming isn't until October, but no one told Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

Petty, along with Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Scott Thurston and Steve Ferrone, performed Thursday night at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center to a sold-out crowd.

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Petty, Campbell, Tench and Blair -- the original Heartbreakers -- were all either born in or lived in and around Gainesville.

But Petty had not performed in Gainesville in 13 years.

"What can I say?" Petty asked the screaming crowd in between hits "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and "I Won't Back Down." "It's so great to be here. I really feel like I've come home."

And the crowd was a good one: The screeching guitar solos and audience's screams could be heard from across West University Avenue.

The show came in the midst of the band's tour promoting Petty's new album, "Highway Companion." Concert tickets sold out in less than 30 minutes after going on sale in July.

Hours before the concert and just inside the O-Dome, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were honored with Gainesville's most prestigious accolades.

Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Haraham and Chris Machen, UF President Bernie Machen's wife, paid respects to Petty and the band.

"He truly embodies what it means to be human," Machen said.

She presented Petty with the UF Distinguished Achievement Award for his musicianship and his humanitarian works.

"I've met presidents and vice presidents and heads of state, but I'm a native of Gainesville, and there's nobody bigger than Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to someone in Gainesville," Hanrahan said. "Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers are to Gainesville what the Beatles are to Liverpool."

She suggested that the Heartbreakers' international renown helped elevate Gainesville's reputation, and she proclaimed that Sept. 21, 2006 he known as "Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Day."

Each band member received a key to the city.

"It's much nicer than Chicago's," Petty noted.

Thurston and Ferrone, who do not hail from Gainesville, were named honorary Gators.

Petty got his start in the Gainesville music scene as a teenager in 1965, and was influenced by Elvis Presley's visit to Florida.

By 1971, his band Mudcrutch gained a following and performed for audiences topping 1,000 people.

In 1975, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers was formed.

The band became legendary.

The many songs in Petty's repertoire about Southern living are inspired by his upbringing.

"It's a double-edged sword, the South," he said after the ceremony. "That makes it very intriguing, and sort of ... It's a romantic place -- it's easy to write about, really. It's very colorful.

Characters are very drawn. And there's a mystery about the South that I like."

Thirty years, 16 Grammy Award nominations and more than 50 million album sales later, Petty -- meek and soft-spoken -- has a rock star's reputation and a hero's welcome upon returning to Gainesville.

"It's a beautiful town," Petty said. "I have nothing but fond memories."

The band's 13-year hiatus from performing in Gainesville resulted in a tour schedule that would have brought Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to the ciry during summer, when few students would be in town to hear them.

This time, the band went out of its way to be on the road a little longer and play in Gainesville.

"I really, really, love this town," Tench said. "It's very special, and y'all really need to know what you've got here. It doesn't feel like any other town that I know -- it's really warm, and it's really lovely."