After 40 years of commercial and critical success, Tom Petty needs neither introduction nor fresh adulation. His reputation now precedes him to the extent that, as witnessed last night at a packed concert at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, he merely has to step on stage to receive a standing ovation.

Celebrating 40 years of The Heartbreakers, this was a show unashamedly revelling in greatest hits nostalgia. So it made sense to start at the very beginning, kicking off with “Rockin’ Around (With You),” the first song on their first album, accompanied by vintage footage of the band in action.

The 2017 version of The Heartbreakers seemed overly comfortable compared to the images of their hungry younger selves. Settling into a gentle pace that ensured that the first three quarters of the concert grooved gently rather than generating rock and roll thrills, “Last Dance with Mary Jane” and “You Don’t Know How It Feels” both descended into extended soloing duels between Petty and lead guitarist Mike Campbell.

Would Petty ever have reached superstar status without Campbell by his side? On last night’s form, probably not. It was Campbell, ice cool under a sunhat and behind ever-present shades, providing the meat on the bones of Petty’s deceptively simple songs, including an early highlight with the first jaw-dropping shred of the evening on “Forgotten Man.”

tom petty

Instead of stoking wild times, Petty was inspiring community spirit, leading sing-alongs for “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin,’” before encouraging the entire arena to clap as one to herald the arrival of the “Don’t Come Around Here” big finish.

After 40 years Petty knows what he’s doing. The atmosphere in the arena never dipped below buoyant, even when the energy was coming from the crowd, not his band. And although his stage banter seemed to stick to the gently charming routine, he wasn’t averse to the occasional journey off script.

“I love you too,” he smiled, replying to an ill-timed shout of affection from the floor. “If I could, I’d come out and hug every one of you. Maybe not you, sir. Ok, if you shave your back I will.”

Although admittedly a celebration of a tremendous back catalogue, Petty wasn’t in pure crowd-pleasing greatest hits mode. A three-song visit to his “Wildflowers” album included a rendition of “It’s Good To Be King” with an extended jam that entertained few outside the musicians involved. “Learning To Fly” and “Yer So Bad” added the benefit of familiarity, if not excitement, to the parade of mid-paced afternoon radio favourites.

And then, after close to 90 minutes barely breaking a sweat, The Heartbreakers suddenly remembered that they’re a great rock and roll band. “I Should Have Known It” delivered the first diamond hard riff of the night. “Refugee” kept the pace high, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” turned on the afterburners.

The encore continued with more of the same, “You Wreck Me” highlighted by Campbell and keyboard wizard Benmont Tench exchanging licks. The big finish of “American Girl” was illustrated with a video celebrating the diversity of the women of the United States, a subtle point made on an apolitical evening.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have never been about pushing the envelope. But with 40 years’ worth of hits in their back pockets, ably illustrated by last night’s memorable five-song finale, it’s impossible to deny them their rightful place among the rock and roll immortals.