When Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks conquered British Summer Time

For two veterans with oodles of classic songs between them, both dripping professionalism, this show should be a walk in the Park

a shot of tom petty on stage
(Image: © Kevin Nixon)

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July 9. A full moon in Capricorn, aka the Buck Moon: a time for rutting, magic and midsummer madness. Or, as they call it in Hyde Park, Barclaycard Presents British Summer Time. A suitable venue, then, for the return of the Mac queen Stevie Nicks, who takes to the Great Oak Stage in Mafioso widow’s weeds, throwing Mata Hari shapes. Her well-crafted band – led by veteran guitarist Waddy Wachtel, Nicks’s long-time confidante and accomplice – lock in on opener Gold And Braid. It’s just one of four songs from her 1981 Bella Donna debut album era that will punctuate a late afternoon made for languid nostalgia.

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

As fresh shawls arrive, Stevie’s gloved hands reach skywards during If Anyone Falls. Her voice is cool and brittle these days (don’t ask, but she’s 69), yet she’s still got the moves, and her singers – Sharon Celani and Marilyn ‘Minnie’ Martin (regular Lori Nicks being on maternity leave) – don’t have to perform any rescue missions should the show drift south. It doesn’t. Gypsy, from Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, increases the pulse in its newly minted arrangement (from the Netflix drama of the same name starring Naomi Watts), while Outside The Rain keeps her fans on the edge of ecstasy, before Dreams gets even hardened cynics mumbling the Rumours anthem.

Things get whacky only when Nicks emerges in a White Witch of Narnia fur coat for Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream), then returns to her gothic dressing-up box for the silk Gold Dust Woman shawl. Her paeans to Prince are highlights – Stand Back, written in response to Little Red Corvette, bears his imprint, and tonight she references When Doves Cry on Edge Of Seventeen. Nicks’s own history is personified in Rhiannon, sounding gorgeous as ever. “The only song that we’ve ever not done… you just can’t get rid of her.”

Stevie Nicks: throwing Mata Hari shapes

Stevie Nicks: throwing Mata Hari shapes (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

With Landslide, which is of similar vintage, fading away, Stevie makes a gracious exit, promising great things from the headliners. She’s not a bad warm-up act and she’ll be back later.

Full moon fever part two. As their intro song, Johnny Cash’s Country Boy, fades away, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers hit a British stage for the first time since 2012 when they sold out London’s Royal Albert Hall and appeared at the Isle of Wight festival. “It’s been far too long, a ridiculously long time,” says Petty, who takes to the stage sporting his familiar military jacket as a reminder that while his feet are in Los Angeles, his heart and soul – and that of the Heartbreakers – remains in the Deep South, and in Gainesville, Florida precisely.

But he has a long-term soft spot for the UK since he established the group as a major force following a 1977 support tour here with Nils Lofgren. As a reminder, they turn back the clock with video footage of the band performing on The Old Grey Whistle Test and kick off with Rockin’ Around (With You), the first track on their 1976 debut album. “To be here in such a beautiful London summer is amazing,” he announces. “We are celebrating our fortieth year together, so we’re gonna look at this show like a giant record and we’re gonna drop the needle all over it!”

Petty and Mike Campbell lock into a groove

Petty and Mike Campbell lock into a groove (Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

It’s partly due to Petty and the band’s professionalism that tonight’s set-list feels tailor-made, although actually, bar the odd tweak, it’s written in stone. What has changed over the years is that the Heartbreakers are more muscular than in their skinny power-pop days. Petty plays far more lead guitar, and the set pieces, such as It’s Good To Be King, have mutated into Allman Brothers territory, with Mike Campbell adding the southern accents to a tune that started life as a piece of whimsy but is now about as badass as anything in the Heartbreakers catalogue, with thrilling interplay between Fender Telecaster and Gibson SG.

In fact, every song is delivered with a brace of different guitars – great news for equipment nerds. Still, there are subtleties with Crawling Back To You and the semi-acoustic Wildflowers, and plenty of those backs-against-the-wall protest pieces that have united Petty and his followers across the years. You Don’t Know How It Feels and the anthemic singalong I Won’t Back Down still have plenty of heft, and Free Fallin’, with its drawled echoes of LSD-country Byrds, is simply a marvellous pop epic with a mystic bite and enough personal detail to fuel a short story.

Walls, from the She’s The One soundtrack, seems like an odd choice. They’d have been better off maintaining the mood with the hook-fest of, say, Into The Great Wide Open, but the sense of communion demanded from these events returns on Don’t Come Around Here No More, the song inspired by the fractious end of Stevie Nicks’s relationship with Joe Walsh, a couple on the highway to hell.

(Image credit: Kevin Nixon)

Then guess what? Nicks is brought on stage as “an honorary band member” to duet on Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around. It’s not quite the surprise some thought, but a pleasant Everly Brothers moment given extra oomph by Petty’s immaculate singers, the Webb Sisters.

The home straight is a doddle thanks to the ethereal Learning To Fly, Runnin’ Down A Dream and Refugee, although that now sounds vaguely cross rather than like any rebel yell. It’s difficult to get too antsy at an event where subliminal messages for a well-known bank are being flashed in your face. This is corporate rock, like it or lump it, and if you really want to get close to the front then you have to pay a hefty upgrade.

Petty and company exit where they came in, with American Girl, slightly at odds with the rest of the set but an FM classic and a trusty old friend. Petty, Benmont Tench, Ron Blair, Campbell and friends take their bows, and the crowd flood out into the twilight, basking in the afterglow of having seen a preservation act give it their best shot. Maybe these days that’s all you can ask for.

Why I love Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, by Juliette Lewis

The Story Behind The Song: Refugee By Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Max Bell

Max Bell worked for the NME during the golden 70s era before running up and down London’s Fleet Street for The Times and all the other hot-metal dailies. A long stint at the Standard and mags like The Face and GQ kept him honest. Later, Record Collector and Classic Rock called.