No heartbreak at Petty’s Gainesville homecoming
By Dave Schlenker
Ocala Star-Banner — Friday, September 22, 2006
Petty and Heartbreakers given keys to Gainesville at news conference
GAINESVILLE – It has been 13 years since home-grown hero Tom Petty plugged into an amp on Alachua County soil. And, to be sure, this city has missed him.
Fact is, the University of Florida celebrated homecoming – of sorts – two weeks early when more than 8,000 fans wildly greeted Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the second the band stepped onto the O’Connell Center stage Thursday night. Fans came from out of state and all points in Florida, from Jacksonville to Palm Beach to the Panhandle to – naturally – Ocala and every corner of Gainesville.
They went berserk – stomping, screaming and causing a rumble that rivaled the neighboring Swamp on game day.
The crowd started going nuts when the lights went down, and when the first chord of “Listen to Her Heart” was played, the noise only intensified.
In fact, the crowd sang along, word for word, as well as on the next song, “Last Dance With Mary Jane.”
Later, at 9:45 p.m., Stevie Nicks joined him on stage to sing their song, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
“It’s so nice to be here, I really feel I’ve come home,” Petty said early in the concert, launching 20 seconds of foot-stomping and screaming. “We have a long show for you tonight, I hope you have paid the baby sitter and everything.”
In fact every time Petty approached the microphone on the third leg of the band’s 30th anniversary tour, he was nearly drowned out by the screams. “Thank you so much, man. Just incredible. Everywhere I look around here, there are a lot of memories.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer now calls Malibu home, but Thursday clearly was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Day. Really. It was TP & the HB Day – as proclaimed by Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan hours before the concert.
At a pre-show news conference, UF’s First Lady Chris Machen introduced Petty and the band.
“What we have here today is a homecoming of a different sort,” Machen said, referring to UF’s real Homecoming on Oct. 7. She then presented Petty, a former Gainesville High School student who skipped graduation for a gig, with a UF Distinguished Achievement Award.
“I thank everybody,” Petty said, accepting the UF award. “I thank the university for making us distinguished people.”
Then, the mayor presented hometown musicians Petty, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair and Mike Campbell, as well as non-Gainesville members Steve Ferrone and Scott Thurston, with keys to the city. Members graciously accepted their keys, with Petty noting, “It’s a lot nicer than Chicago’s, I’ll tell you that.”
And with that, Tom Petty and Heartbreakers were home. Some band members arrived days earlier to spend time with family, while Gainesville’s famed 34th Street graffiti wall – usually reserved for student spray-paint art and fraternity proclamations – welcomed the band of 50-somethings home.
It has been years since Petty, himself, has been back to Gainesville, and he said he has been absorbing the evolution of his hometown. “It’s a lot bigger, a lot of strip malls,” Petty said, noting it is still “beautiful, though.”
“I really, really love this town. You need to know what you’ve got here,” said Tench, who lives in California, but recently purchased his family’s Gainesville home after his father, former Gainesville judge Benmont Tench Sr., died. Tench spoke during the news conference as dozens of cameras snapped in the cramped corner of the O’Dome.
Because of the homecoming, this stop on the anniversary tour generated more media requests than any other stop, according to publicists. There has been much nostalgia among band members in recent days – friends, family, old haunts, clubs and houses. The band even gathered at Tench’s family home to show Ferrone and Thurston where they used to rehearse. Clearly, Gainesville means a lot to this band.
Most of the band, anyway.
“Scott and Steve are sick of hearing about it,” Petty said, as the band started laughing.
Ferrone, who replaced original drummer and current Floridian Stan Lynch, chimed in and said Gainesville reminded him a lot of his hometown in England.
“The only thing,” he said, “in Brighton [England], we don’t have any alligators.”
The show sold out in 30 minutes – the second-fastest sell-out in O’Connell Center history – and many ticket holders were making the trip from Ocala.
Two of those residents, John and Cindy Harvey, were riding their Harleys in Cedar Key the day tickets went on sale, continually redialing TicketMaster on their cell phones, and were more than elated when they finally got through.
“It’s an event,” John said before the show, motioning toward the crowds and media. “People on the radio said people were taking the day off for this.”
Jason and Jeanna Turner of Ocala were both wearing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers T-shirts.
“I’ve always been really inspired by his music, and this will probably the last time I ever get to see him,” Jason said.
Kelly Canonico, who came to the concert from Toms River, N.J., was also wearing a band T-shirt.
“It’s Petty,” she said. “It’s Gainesville. Had to go.”
She described Gainesville as a mecca and her journey as a pilgrimage. She said it was her 14th Tom Petty show.
UF alum and actor Stephen Root made the trip from Los Angeles for a long weekend in Gainesville with his brother Rick, a fellow UF alum, now living in New Orleans, and a friend from Jacksonville. Root came to see his old buddy Petty and the UF-Kentucky game.
Root, who stared as Milton in “Office Space” and Jimmy James in “News Radio,” first saw Petty’s Mudcrutch band in the early ’70s, but the two got to know each other on the set of the Fox animated comedy, “King of the Hill.” Root provides the voices of Bill and Buck, while Petty gives voice to the reappearing character Lucky.
Root said he just saw Petty at a recent taping, so why travel all the way Gainesville?
“I thought it would be really cool to see him in this venue.”