Exploring Entertainment in Florida's 850 & Beyond
On May 23rd, 1995, at the tender age of 9, my life changed forever: My mother and father being the wonderful parents they are felt I was old enough to attend my first concert with them. Myself, my parents (Fred & Elaine), our neighbor Nikki, and her son (a classmate of mine) Michael all rode together to the Pensacola Civic Center that evening. The concert was Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on the Wildflowers tour. To this day I remember how everything felt from the minute the lights went off, being surrounded by thousands of people all singing and dancing together, all while the band performed song after song looking like they were having the time of their life.
I immediately became a music fan.
Tom Petty’s music has been a constant favorite of mine. From the fantastic Heartbreakers records to his well-crafted solo albums, the super-group Traveling Wilburys, and his return-to-roots original band Mudcrutch (which Petty reformed in his later years and recorded two phenomenal full-length albums with). With Petty’s storied 40+ year career, it’s safe to say I wasn’t alone.
Death is apart of life. It’s just a fact every human on this Earth has to deal with, however, that doesn’t make the grieving process any easier – be it a family member or a close friend. Then, there are times when we grieve for those we never knew but impacted our lives greatly.
When I was a senior in High School (2005), I remember arriving at school immediately greeted with the news that Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell had been shot the night before at a concert in Ohio. I remember the instant feeling of shock and sadness. I felt sick. I couldn’t focus. I was legitimately heartbroken, and I never once met this guy.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2017. I received a text message from a friend of mine on an early October evening saying he had just heard Tom Petty had died. It was later confirmed on October 2nd that Petty had indeed passed, suffering cardiac arrest. Once again that familiar grieving feeling we all know well washed over me. I called my mother to break the news and I could hear it in her voice – she felt the same.
“I felt like I had just lost one of my best friends,” Wildflowers keyboardist Glen Freeman said as we sat upstairs at Vinyl Music Hall on December 30th, 2017. With us were drummer Tim Ward and guitarist/frontman Jonathan Guthrie.
From Birmingham, Alabama, The Wildflowers formed over 6 years ago after a “beer and video game session” between Jonathan and Darryell Stone (bass/backing vocals) where the two essentially that evening decided to form a tribute band together; Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers being the act of choice. Some back and forth communication lead them to Glen Freeman (keyboardist) and then to lead guitar player Curt Granger. “If we are going to do this it had to be perfect,” Glen said. “I almost said this is it. We rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed but couldn’t find the right lead player until Curt who is actually more of a metal player came to us and ‘Hey I’m a Tom Petty fan.’ The way I looked it was, well, if Curt wants to play with us then why not? From the first rehearsal we all had, I tried not to smile because right away I knew this was gonna work.”
Just like that The Wildflowers, the ultimate tribute to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was born.
For the band members of The Wildflowers, Tom Petty was an easy choice. When asking Jonathan what got him into playing music in the first place he replied, “It sounds cliché as hell but Tom Petty. I ganked a tape from my brother and it was the Greatest Hits. I had a guitar and one of his friends showed me a couple chords and it was to ‘Learning To Fly’ and ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’. That’s where a lot of it started for me especially singing and playing.” He would go on to state it’s the lyrics of Tom Petty he loves the most. “Listening to the lyrics to Wildflowers (1994 Tom Petty solo record), I can’t tell you how many times I’d be driving down the road going ‘Yup, you to rethink your life son,'” he says with a laugh as the other band members chimed in “It’s real” and “It tells a story.” Jonathan elaborates “I love AC/DC and you take a song like ‘Shoot to Thrill’ or ‘Back In Black’ and yeah that’s really cool but then you take a song like ‘Learning To Fly’ or ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and that applies to your life. These songs are real.”
The Wildflowers took the stage at Pensacola’s Vinyl Music Hall in front of a packed house of dedicated Tom Petty fans cheering as frontman Jonathan Guthrie walked out with a top hat on in tribute of the man himself. The group wasted no time busting into their opening song ‘Listen To Her Heart’ followed by the all-time Heartbreakers crowd favorite ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ – and just that quick, the packed house was won over.
The group performed song after song of Tom Petty’s hits, along with deep cut tracks including ‘Kings Highway,’ ‘Breakdown,’ ‘Into The Great Wide Open,’ and ‘The Waiting.’ Jonathan would run from side to side of the stage looking at the audience and let out smile filled with joy and excitement while playing the opening riff of the song before he’d take his post center stage to continue singing.
Throughout the band’s performance, I stood near the back by the bar smiling from ear-to-ear, constantly bobbing my head, tapping my foot, and I looked around to see the hundreds in attendance all doing the same. The crowd singing and dancing brought me immediately back to 1995, being with my parents watching Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers all those years ago.
The Wildflowers took a brief break before Jonathan retook the stage with Steve Zolnierzak from Pensacola’s Coastal Fire and the two sang the song ‘Wildflowers’ together as The Wildflowers band joined Jonathan back on stage to wrap up the set with the classic ‘American Girl’ and then ‘Running Down A Dream.’ When the band finished the final song they all joined collectively at the front of the stage to take a bow with the crowd at Vinyl roaring at the top of their lungs.
After, the band walked to the side of the stage where they were greeted by dozens of attendees shaking their hands, giving them hugs, and taking pictures with them. “Its a privilege,” Glen says with a smile on his face. “It’s still as much fun as it was 6 years ago when we started.”
Jonathan chimes in, “We are fans. We want to do it justice. We want to celebrate good music; keep it alive. The best thing about being in this band has been the fans. I was grieving in October. My hero passed away and when fans come up to me after the shows and tell me ‘thank you’ there is a connection there.” The connection The Wildflowers had with the Tom Petty fans in Pensacola on that evening was a strong one because less than two weeks after the performance it was announced that The Wildflowers would return to Vinyl Music Hall on May 11th, 2018 to once again keep the music alive and to celebrate one of the greatest songwriters in music history.
I personally would like to thank Jonathan, Glen, and the rest of the amazing members of The Wildflowers for allowing myself and 850ME the chance to sit down with them and being giving such an incredible experience watching this skilled band perform. That evening Jonathan told me “I met (Petty) in a dream once. I was sitting on the pier playing guitar and he walked up to me and didn’t say anything and then just nodded his head at me”. I feel Tom is up there right now nodding his head in approval of The Wildflowers.