Petty Theft at Slim's, by Carolyn McCoy
Petty Theft (photo: Carolyn McCoy)

Words by Carolyn McCoy

The music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers spanned well over 40 years. There is something about Tom Petty songs that brings the listener into his world while clearly stating that this is our world as well.

Tom Petty became my official spiritual guru back in 1992. I was restless, young and searching desperately for meaning within my life. His songs of freedom of spirit and freedom of body via the endless two-lane blacktop of the American Dream always gave me great hope for expanding my own horizons. His songs permeated my ears as much they permeated my brain in all my personal and emotional travels and spiritual trips to find my sanity. I practiced at the Altar Of Rock and Roll, and it was Tom Petty who gave me more truths to guide me on my life path than any other songwriter I have ever encountered.

For myself, hearing Tom Petty songs might be similar to what the words of the Bible do for others. He has an ability to tap into my own disheveled psyche and tell me the words I need to hear, and he carries it all out on the wings of some expert musicianship.

With the devastating death of Tom Petty back in October, there was a massive loss of a true genius songwriter. The hole in the music world caused by his death can never be filled, but lucky for us all, his music lives on in bands like Petty Theft.

As San Francisco’s ultimate Tom Petty tribute band, Petty Theft has been paying homage to Petty and his righteous rock and roll for over 15 years. Petty Theft is a band that rocks hard with well-executed Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker covers, often gathering the devoted audience to become as much a part of the experience as the band itself in recreating Tom Petty’s sonic magic.

“Since Tom Petty passed, playing his songs has definitely been more emotional,” states Petty Theft singer Dan Durkin. “Our first gig after he died I wasn’t certain how I would be. It was a somber gig and I started the set with “Wildflowers” and luckly I got through that. But then I started ‘Learning To Fly’ and I got so choked up I had a hard time continuing. That was the catalyst moment where I realized he was gone.”

And so, it was a great joy to catch Petty Theft’s recent and magical sold-out night at Petaluma’s Mystic Theater to relive some of Tom Petty’s amazing work. In Petty Theft’s live shows, the band expertly tears through many songs from the Heartbreakers’ massive archive. The Mystic show included “Free Fallin’,”  “American Girl,” “Woman In Love,” as well as more obscure songs such as “Cabin Down Below,” “You Wreck Me,” and “Free Girl Now.”

Durkin takes on the role of delivering the lyrics in a way that retains the intention of the song while making it his own. Guitarists Monroe Grisman and Michael Papenburg share responsibility of those familiar notes that make the music flow like a raging river. Keyboardist Justus Dorbin (substituting for regular Petty Theft keyboardist John Varn) added his own flair and flavor while bassist Django Bayless and drummer Adam Berkowitz create the heartbeat that pumps blood music into our veins. Guest vocalist April Grisman set the finale on fire with her backup on “Don’t Come Around here No More.”

“I love playing with these guys, they are like brothers, some of whom I’ve know for more than 10 years,” says Durkin. “This band really touches the heart and because of Petty’s death we are now in this moment as a band where we have to be there for people. Petty Theft is not about costumes or dressing up, it’s about that music, it’s about the heart and soul and being yourself within that music.”

Petty Theft is a band I deeply respect because they are incredible musicians who take great honor in playing songs of the Heartbreakers in a real and honest way. “Tom Petty songs are simple and pure and he get’s his point across in that three-minute song, “says Durkin. “He’s a common man; he’s one of us. What he says, he’s like a prophet, people who hear this music really latch onto these songs.”

With Petty Theft, there is none of the campiness that some cover bands try to achieve when emulating another rock band. With Petty Theft, it’s all about the greatness of the songs and music of Tom Petty.