But on Wednesday, there he was again at age 57, leading the Heartbreakers through a satisfying two-hour set at a sold-out United Center, and with his laconic charm and trademark nasal twang as oddly endearing as ever.
Without exception, there isn't an artist in rock history who hasn't been better appreciated in the clubs or theaters than in the enormodomes. And of the dozen Petty shows I've witnessed through the years, I doubt I'll see a better one than those he did at the Vic during a now legendary residency in 2003.
But there's no denying that Petty and the Heartbreakers are one of the all-time great pairings of a timeless songwriter and his ideal accompanists — easily on a par with Bob Dylan and the Band or Neil Young and Crazy Horse, though these blue-collar heroes rarely benefit from such lofty comparisons — and wherever they choose to perform, the rock world is a better place for having them.
Scanning the set list, you'd never know that Petty has a new disc in the stores: the recently released, long-overdue self-titled debut by his first band, Mudcrutch, which also featured his essential Heartbreakers foils, keyboardist Benmont Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell, in addition to Tom Leadon and Randall Marsh.
Petty would no doubt justify this evening's absence of any Mudcrutch songs by saying that the Heartbreakers are really a different band, and of course they are. But he's never been unduly worried about peddling new product; he didn't even use his Super Bowl appearance to flog the then-current "Highway Companion."
As usual, Wednesday's set was more about celebrating the interplay of this extraordinary group through a good-time mix of fan favorites ("I Won't Back Down," "Even the Losers," "Free Fallin'," "Mary Jane's Last Dance") and just enough rarities and deep cuts to please the hardcore collectors ("Sweet William," a bluesy barn-burner from an old European-only EP, the Traveling Wilburys' "End of the Line," the gonzo blues nugget "Honey Bee" and a deliriously jammed-out rendition of "Saving Grace," written for Cameron Crowe's film "Elizabethtown").
And all of it was as good as arena-rock can get.
Midway through the show, the group was joined by Steve Winwood, whose opening set in support of the new album "Nine Lives" was mostly lackluster faux-jazz easy-listening. The '60s vet was much stronger fronting the Heartbreakers for spirited versions of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" and the soul-garage staple "Gimme Some Lovin'."