Pittsburgh musicians pay tribute to late, great Tom Petty

December 27, 2017

Tom Petty wasn’t as charismatic as Prince. He didn’t have the fashion sense of David Bowie. He wasn’t as influential as Fats Domino or Chuck Berry, or as effervescent as Glen Campbell.

But Petty’s death on Oct. 2, 2017, was deeply felt by fans and musicians who can’t remember what life was like without his music.

“He was one of those guys who was always just there from the late ’70s when I started listening to the radio,” says Jim Donovan, who will sing “Wildflowers” with his daughter Tupelo Donovan at Pittsburgh Plays Petty on Dec. 29 and Jan. 6 at Mr. Smalls in Millvale. “When I came into my teen years in the ’80s he was a fixture all the time. … I didn’t realize until he died how far into my DNA his catalog was.”

The tribute concert —which will feature more than 40 musicians — is the brainchild of musician Cory Muro (The Emo Band, Punchline) and talent buyer Joshua Bakaitus of Mr. Smalls. They wanted to pay homage to Petty by featuring a diverse lineup of musicians, but with a twist.

“We wanted to challenge the musicians by putting them with people they don’t ever play with,” Bakaitus says.

Bakaitus and Muro ostensibly conducted a musicians’ fantasy draft, dividing the players into six bands that will each perform four songs. Some musicians didn’t understand the concept and declined the invitation to perform. But most bought into the premise because of Petty’s influence on their careers.

Michael Lindner, a solo musician and a member of the band 28 North,was 14 the first time he played a Petty song: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” at a guitar camp at the Duquesne University.

“That started a whole whirlwind of life,” says Lindner, who toured the country with 28 North and will sing “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” at the concert. “My whole life, it started with that song. After that, I went and played everywhere.”

Petty’s music, with his band the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist, not only evokes nostalgia. There’s something inherently joyous and affirming about songs such as “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart” or “Learning to Fly.”

“You can’t ever listen to a Tom Petty song without feeling good,” says Jon Belan, the lead for Gene the Werewolf who will sing “The Waiting.” “There’s something about the music that brings everybody together of all ages and races.”

Even musicians who aren’t huge Petty fans admit there’s something irresistible about his music. Musician and songwriter Heather Kropf is mostly influenced by artists such as Joni Mitchell and Sting.

“His music makes me feel like I feel when I’m driving on the open road,” says Kropf, who will be playing keyboards at the show. “It’s just in the music. It feels really good. I don’t own any Tom Petty music, but every time I hear it, I’m reminded of what makes rock ‘n’ roll great. It’s really simple and direct.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.