Previously Published in THE DAILY IOWAN on November 20, 2017.
Image Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS
Written By Rhiana Chickering
Tom Petty touched many generations with his music. When he passed away this fall, several of us felt as though we lost a piece of ourselves — a piece of our identities.
“He [wrote] songs from an honest place, a place of vulnerability, he [was] willing to be vulnerable,” said Dave Helmer, of the band Crystal City. “He [was] willing to present an idea, and you can think it’s about him or not. He [left] a lot to the imagination, but you can even place yourself in his songs, and it makes you feel better — it makes you feel less alone. He just [had] a gift, and I think he [cared]. I think he [cared] a lot.”
On Nov. 18, the Mill and Big Grove Brewery hosted a sold-out Petty tribute. All proceeds were donated to the American Red Cross to support Puerto Rico after the hurricane.
Local Americana musician and tribute coordinator Brian Johannesen wanted to include performances by local artists and musicians of different music styles. Genres included rock ’n’ roll, acoustic, and bluegrass.
This allowed the artists to perform their own interpretations of the songs.
“The people who asked us to perform did not want … cover music,” said April Dirks, who plays cello in bluegrass band Cedar County Cobras. “They wanted all these different musicians to create their own artistic take on the songs.”
The Awful Purdies opened the affair, performing “The Waiting,” “You’re so Bad,” and “Crawling Back to You” with acoustic guitar, accordion, mandolin, bass, cello, and banjo. Similarly, the Cedar County Cobras performed “Cabin Down Below,” “Time to Get Going,” and “I’ll Feel Better When You’re Gone” in a bluegrass style.
However, Petty’s classic, invincible rock ’n’ roll sound was far from excluded, as other classics, including “American Girl,” “Wildflowers,” “Breakdown,” “Running Down a Dream,” and “I Won’t Back Down” were performed exquisitely as classic rock ’n’ roll ballads by David Zollo and the Body Electric, Crystal City, Jason T. Lewis/Sad Iron Music, and the Bernemann Brothers Band.
One of Petty’s most difficult songs to perform, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” originally featuring Stevie Nicks, was intricately sung by Sam Drella and guitarist Ryan Bernemann, who played bass and acoustic guitar astonishingly throughout most of the tribute.
The performing artists also had some special stories and Petty memories to share with the audience.
“[When I was] about 11, and I remember very well,” said keyboardist David Zollo, said, “My father was pulling up on Dubuque Street next to Prairie Lights, and [he went] into a record store called Discount Records, which is gone now … He got a copy of Tom Petty’s third record, Damn the Torpedoes for me, and ever since, I have been a huge fan, and he has had a big influence on me as a songwriter and just a fan of popular, American rock ’n’ roll music.”
Local musician Jason T. Lewis said Petty taught him how to sing. Lewis recalled recording his first album screaming into the microphone like other rock ’n’ roll artists until someone put on Petty’s Wildflowersrecord and told him to listen to how he sang.
At the end, just when we thought the tribute overlooked “Free Fallin’,” the audience remained standing in anticipation for an encore. In the spur of the moment, the band picked up the instruments and played “Free Fallin’ ” — the perfect finale to end the tribute of an inspiring and talented artist and songwriter.
The audience was absolutely mesmerized, as they would be if Petty were performing on the stage — people passionately singing along to every lyric and swaying with every melody. The rhapsody of the audience was unbelievable in that it portrayed the utmost respect for Petty and his music and lyrics.
There is no doubt whether Petty’s impact will continue to live on and affect future generations.
“His work has a real timeless quality … I think his band and he as a songwriter were testaments to the fact that good songs and good bands will endure, and they never will go out of style,” Zollo said. “Rock ’n’ roll is a great thing, and Tom Petty did it well … great songs and a great band will stand the test of time.”
At the end of the tribute, Bernemann said it best: “Rest in peace, Tom Petty.”