Rock and Roll royalty took the stage Sunday evening just as the sun was setting on Atlanta’s newest, and arguably best, outdoor venue.  The man who sings, “it’s good to be King, at least for a while,” looked more like Southern rock’s CEO, dressed in a black three-piece suit with embroidered cowboy lapels and a blazing red tie.  Set amongst lush opera house curtains, one of rock’s greatest hit makers showed once again that he (and the Heartbreakers) are to be counted amongst its finest live performers.

After the opener Petty smiled and said in that unmistakable languid drawl of his, “we’ve got so many songs to play for y’all tonight, so we’re just going to jump right into it for ya.”  So many songs, so many great songs- it occurred to me that a man who has sold over 60 million albums is understated, underestimated and underrated.  Part of a pantheon that includes legends like the Allman Brothers, RL Burnside, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more recently R.E.M. and Widespread Panic, Petty has carved out a special place in rock and roll history;  remaining true to his north Florida roots, yet transcending the “southern rock” label and having universal appeal and success.

“Aw Atlanta,” he said in nasal moan, “it’s great to be back in Georgia.   We’re going to play some of the deeper tracks for ya.”  Most city based shout outs are sycophantic Spinal Tap-esque platitudes.  In this case, Petty clearly meant it.  Petty and the band paid homage to popular pioneers of an ever-evolving genre with a killer cover of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” and a tip of the hat to the ultimate Texas troubadour, J.J. Cale, with “Travelin’ Light.”

In an almost spoken word intro to “Spike”, the master storyteller cleverly revisits his Gainesville roadhouse past telling the tale of a juke joint rife with “killers, thugs, robbers, shrimp boat captains and guitar thieves.” He explains, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”  True indeed for a man who once called Harrison, Orbison, Lynne and Dylan brother.

Petty dedicated the arena anthem sing-a- long “Freefallin’” to “anybody who’s ever had their lover screw them over, but they rise again.”   Like his fabled shrimp boat captain, Petty casts a wide net with this one, yet it seems especially poetic in the city that literally arose from the ashes.

The two-hour mega set climaxed with an encore of crowd pleasers Mary Jane and American Girl.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers delivered a phenomenal show, ending just at 11, as per the custom in sleepy Alpharetta.  If only we could have taken his last song’s advice.

“Oh yeah.  All-right.  Take it easy baby.  Make it last all night.”

photos © 2012 Emily Kelsey