Since moving to Milwaukee in 2009, I’ve been fortunate to be able to attend and cover Summerfest in some capacity every (non-pandemic) summer I’ve lived here. In that span, I’ve been able to catch a lot of concerts on the grounds. Some of those shows—including memorable free stage performances by The Hives, Alkaline Trio, The Beths, Ludacris, Hall & Oates, Death From Above 1979, an early afternoon Eve 6 outing, a strange daytime spectacle by the guy from Live, and a surreal throwback show by Alien Ant Farm—have at least sort of stuck with me for a variety of reasons. Memories of others have faded away over time, buried by the passage of years and newer/more important Big Gig experiences.
At this point in my show-going life, I have a far easier time conjuring names of artists I haven’t seen than I do recalling those I have witnessed in person. When I think of the single biggest personal show-going whiff (both Summerfest-related and in general), one name comes to mind: Tom Petty. Sadly, I will never get to cross him off my concert bucket list, as Petty passed away unexpectedly from an accidental overdose on October 2, 2017 at the age of 66. Less than three months before Petty’s untimely passing, he was on stage at the Summerfest amphitheater—formerly the Marcus Amphitheater and now known as American Family Insurance Amphitheater—for a pair of concerts on consecutive nights. I was in Milwaukee. I was covering Summerfest for this very site. I wasn’t in attendance and I still kick myself for not being there.
Skipping Petty’s final Milwaukee concerts isn’t even close to being the same thing as failing to attend Don Rickles’ many Potowatomi performances late in his life. It’s nowhere near as justifiable as missing Nirvana’s 1993 show at the Mecca because I lived 120 miles away and was, uh, busy being eight years old. It’s not as egregious as skipping out on the assured oddity of seeing Macaulay Culkin’s band, The Pizza Underground, at Hotel Foster that one time. This is different. It’s borderline unforgivable.
I say this because I had a lot of chances to see Tom Petty on the Summerfest grounds through the years. Including those July 5 and July 6 appearances in 2017, Petty played the amphitheater a record-setting total of FIFTEEN TIMES. A dozen of those concerts took places between 2001 and 2017. Though I could focus on pretty much any of those shows (as well as the pre-Tyler-having-a-driver’s-license shows, had my parents been willing to decimate the modest family budget to drive me to shows in 1999, 1991, or his Summerfest debut in 1989), I’m choosing to set my sights specifically on Tom Petty’s Milwaukee finale on July 6, 2017—my last chance to see an artist I grew up loving, a songwriter I reconnected with in my early twenties, and someone I have been listening to on-and-off ever since.
SET LIST (JULY 6)
Rockin’ Around (With You)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance
You Don’t Know How It Feels
You Got Lucky
I Won’t Back Down
Don’t Come Around Here No More
It’s Good To Be King
Crawling Back To You
Learning To Fly
Yer So Bad
I Should Have Known It
Runnin’ Down A Dream
You Wreck Me
The 2017 jaunt was the billed as “40th Anniversary Tour” for Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, so the band and its namesake made sure to touch on songs from various points of their lengthy and altogether outstanding run. They instantly reached all the way back to their early material by kicking off the concert with 1978’s “Rockin’ Around (With You)” and chased it with “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a song released a quarter-century later.
While Petty and Co. made sure to give Milwaukee a heaping helping of hits from their overflowing collection of timeless classics, they also rewarded “real ones” by occasionally parsing in lesser-known songs (by “worldwide sensation that’s been playing arenas since in mid-’80s” standards, at least) like “Forgotten Man” and beautiful Wildflowers deep-ish cut “Crawling Back To You” on either side of transcendent rock and roll standards like “Free Fallin’” and “I Won’t Back Down.”
Still, as an artist who could fill a sprawling amphitheater twice on consecutive nights, Petty made sure to play what show-goers craved. The majority of the 19-song set did service to his hits, both with The Heartbreakers and from his subsequent solo turn. Interestingly, the July 5 and July 6 sets were almost identical, with the only difference being the addition of “You Got Lucky” in place of “Into The Great Wide Open” on night two. Beyond that minor change, Petty’s fifteenth and final Milwaukee performance was a workmanlike run-through of the material that made him one of the most consistent, accomplished, appreciated, and enduring songwriters in history. And as you probably could’ve guessed, they finished things off the encore with “American Girl.”
There’s a reason Summerfest gravitated toward Tom Petty. I’d like think there’s a reason Petty made his way back to Milwaukee as often as he did. Ironically, I think the frequency of his visits is at least part of the reason I foolishly neglected to see him perform before his tragic passing. “He was sure to come back in a few years,” I probably though, opting to see something else instead. “And when he does, I’ll magically have more time and more money to splurge on ticket.” Well, Tom Petty never came back after his Summerfest doubleheader in 2017, and he never will. Knowing what I do now, I wish I could go back to remedy that recurring mistake, take it all in, and cherish every note.