Tom Petty: 40 Years of Rock N' Roll at MSG

By John D. Luerssen

A legendary songsmith and storyteller with a knack for unforgettable hooks, Tom Petty was a rock and roll giant who crafted some of rock’s most enduring songs—from “American Girl” and “Breakdown” to “Free Fallin'” and “Wildflowers”—during forty-plus years in the spotlight. With the Heartbreakers, Petty played ten times at Madison Square Garden between 1979 and 2014, either as a headliner or in support of his childhood idol (and fellow Traveling Wilburys member) Bob Dylan.

If that wasn’t enough, Petty delivered a memorable performance at MTV’s 1994 Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall after being honored with the Video Vanguard Award. And the Heartbreakers performed a celebrated run of dates at The Beacon Theatre in 2013.

Looking back at each of Tom’s appearances on The Garden stage and its sister venues we remember the great memories this late rock icon gave fans while performing in New York City. What was your fondest memory of Tom Petty?

September 22, 1979 | Tom Petty's First Appearance at MSG (Musicians United for Safe Energy Concerts)

Tom Petty was a month away from releasing his breakthrough third album Damn the Torpedoes when he was tapped to appear at the MUSE concerts at Madison Square Garden. Appearing with then-more established performers like Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen on this night, Petty & the Heartbreakers rendered a nine-song set that mixed better known tracks from their first two LPs like “American Girl” “Breakdown” and “I Need To Know” with his new single “Refugee.” Petty also fired off a pair of covers, including the Isley Brothers’ revered “Shout” and Bert Berns’ “Cry to Me,” the latter which appeared on the MUSE triple live benefit album when it was released in late 1979. Closing out the night, Tom was brought out to join Bruce and Jackson for an encore rendition of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay.”

July 15 – 17, 1986 | Petty and the Heartbreakers Team with Dylan

The joint True Confessions tour teamed Petty with folk/rock legend Bob Dylan for a three-night stand in New York. For these shows, the Heartbreakers displayed their dexterity as Dylan’s bluesy backing band for three-hours, performing songs like “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively 4th Street” with aplomb, working through surprises like the unannounced appearance of Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood on the first night. Petty also helmed a tight set of his own during these Garden shows, that included staples like “The Waiting,” “Breakdown,” “Listen to Her Heart” and “Even The Losers” plus the yet to be released “Think About Me” and “Spike,” which was picked from 1985’s Southern Accents LP.

July 8, 1987 | Rock 'N' Roll Caravan Descends on Manhattan

For Petty’s first headlining concert at MSG, he mixed Heartbreakers standards like “Here Comes My Girl” and “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” with material like “Jammin’ Me” from his just-released seventh studio LP Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). Covers by everyone from the Clash (“Should I Stay or Should I Go”) to Chuck Berry (“Bye Bye Johnny”) to Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”), kept things fresh. Tom had hand-picked the opening acts for his ’87 Caravan and brought along kindred spirits The Georgia Satellites (who had just peaked with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”) and guitar-slingers The Del Fuegos, featuring future Petty biographer Warren Zanes among its members.

October 16, 1992 | Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert

Tom Petty’s friendship and affiliation with Dylan had long been firmly established by the time of his appearance at Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert—which also boasted everyone from John Mellencamp, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Stevie Wonder to Lou Reed, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Eddie Vedder. As a celebration of Dylan’s three decades as a recording artist, this concert event had many highlights, but Petty’s takes on “License to Kill” (from 1983’s Infidels) and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (from 1966’s landmark Blonde on Blonde) plus the Heartbreakers’ collaboration with original Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn on “Mr . Tambourine Man” easily rank among the most memorable.

1994 VMA's | Radio City Music Awards

From the Mad Max vibe of 1983’s “You Got Lucky,” the psychedelic feel of ’85’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and the shopping mall circa-’89 depicted in “Free Fallin’,” Tom Petty had established himself as an unlikely MTV star in his thirties. By the time of 1991’s Faye Dunaway and Johnny Depp-starring “Into the Great Wide Open” and 1993’s Kim Basinger as a corpse clip “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”  Petty’s amazing run of music videos cemented him as one of the medium’s leading innovators. When he was bestowed the honor at the MTV Awards in September 1994 by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, Petty thanked the audience by saying, “I just tried to put something on the screen every time. Something for you to look at, something to make you smile and to entertain you. I never expected an award … It’s nice to be noticed.” Following his acceptance speech, he and the Heartbreakers took the stage for a smoking performance of “Mary Jane” that rocked Radio City.

March 20, 1995 | Dogs With Wings Tour

Following the 1994 release of Petty’s critically acclaimed Wildflowers —his first solo album since Full Moon Fever—he convened the Heartbreakers to support his latest smash “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on the road. When Tom’s Dogs With Wings Tour touched down in Manhattan, he launched with “Love Is A Long Road” and gave ample time to ’90s material like “Learning to Fly” while mixing in favorites from his past. His recent, bluesy “Honey Bee,” the acoustic keeper “Wildflowers” and his fantastic, riff-driven new single “You Wreck Me” prompted The New York Times to call Petty’s performance “crisp and gleaming.”

December 13, 2002 | The Last DJ in NYC

When Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers turned up in NYC at the end of 2002 for what was the second to last stop of their tour in support of The Last DJ, they opened the show with the album’s signature ode to independence and refusing to sell out. Moving forward with a bevy of favorites including 1981’s “A Woman in Love” and 1989’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” Petty proclaimed The Garden “the greatest rock room.” From there, the Heartbreakers turned out a welcome Damn the Torpedoes nugget called “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid).” At the end of the evening, Petty unloaded a scorching Stones-tinged version of Chuck Berry’s “Carol” that gave way to a roof-raising “American Girl.”

June 20, 2006 | Petty and Nicks at MSG

Although 2006 marked the release of Highway Companion, Tom Petty’s long-awaited third solo album, The Heartbreakers remained his loyal sidemen and together they embarked on a celebratory 30th Anniversary tour. From the opening notes of “Listen to Her Heart” to covers of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and Them’s “Mystic Eyes” and throughout their litany of hits, the band played consistently strong. That this Madison Square Garden show featured their “little sister” Stevie Nicks turning up to duet on “Stop Draggin My Heart Around” and Hard Promises’ “Insider,” made it especially memorable. The Fleetwood Mac-chanteuse also delivered lead vocals on 1978’s “I Need to Know” and backing vocals on several other numbers.

June 17, 2008 | Summer with Winwood

Petty’s 2008 tour was anchored by opening act Steve Winwood, who turned up in the middle of The Heartbreakers’ set at MSG to sing lead on two of his most enduring numbers. The back to back delivery of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” and the Spencer Davis Group’s “Give Me Some Lovin’.” Elsewhere, Petty served up classics like “Even the Losers” and his Travelling Wilburys hit “End of the Line.” The lone exception was “Sweet William,” an obscure 1999 non-LP B-side, which Petty introduced by acknowledging “You probably don’t know this next one.”

July 28, 2010 | Heartbreakers Have 'Mojo'

“It’s great to be here in the temple of rock!” Petty told an enthusiastic New York audience at its 2010 Garden concert. And although Tom and the Heartbreakers were in town to promote Mojo, their first proper studio album together in eight years, that record’s unfamiliarity to many fans left songs like “Jefferson Jericho Blues” relegated to a mid-show four-song set. Elsewhere, Petty and his band played flawlessly as expected, bookending the concert with hits like “I Won’t Back Down” and “Refugee.”

May 20 – 26, 2013 | Five Nights Deep at The Beacon

When Tom Petty descended on New York’s Beacon Theatre in May 2013 for a five night engagement with the Heartbreakers, his plan was to dig deep into his songbook while keeping some familiar material in the set for cohesion. The first night (May 20) saw the emergence of “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It)” from the group’s eponymous 1976 debut which hadn’t been performed since 1980. Other rarities like “Billy the Kid” from ’99’s Echo, and The Traveling Wilburys’ “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” ensured these shows were not for casual fans. In ensuing nights, Petty dusted off “When the Time Comes” from ’78’s You’re Gonna Get It on May 21st and “Nightwatchman” and “Something Big” from Hard Promises on May 23rd. “We last did this song in 1981. My how time flies,” Petty marveled on the third night as he introduced the latter. Over the remaining nights, fans at the Beacon were treated to even more obscurities, including “The Damage You’ve Done” from ’87’s Let Me Up and the 1994 Wildflowers leftover ‘Girl on LSD” on May 25th and 26th respectively.

September 10, 2014 | 'Hypnotic Eye' at The Garden

On July 29th 2014, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their 13th studio album Hypnotic Eye. Debuting at number one, it was surprisingly the only Petty album to ever top the U.S. album chart. Six weeks later, in another milestone, Petty and the band performed at Madison Square Garden for what would become their tenth and final occasion. In a unique move, the Heartbreakers launched this show with “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” their long-running tribute to the Byrds. As the evening progressed, they peppered their set of obligatory numbers with surprises like “A Woman In Love (It’s Not Me),” “Rebels” and “Two Gunslingers” and exceptional new material Like “American Dream Plan B” and “U Get Me High.” Later, sandwiched between his enduring encores “You Wreck Me” and “American Girl,” Petty was at the height of his powers as he blasted out a raging rendition of Paul Revere and The Raiders’ “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.”

Tom Petty Rockin' N' Rollin' at MSG

A photo history of Tom Petty performing at MSG's iconic venues: Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre.