Petty Theft, Sonoma County-based Tom Petty tribute band, more popular than ever
The weekend after Tom Petty died last October, the North Bay tribute band Petty Theft took the stage at Geyser Peak Winery in Healdsburg.
“We came out and did ‘Wildflowers’ first, and there were some wet eyes out there,” said guitarist and lead singer Dan Durkin.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m OK,’ and then we did ‘Learning to Fly.’ As soon as I came to the mic, I couldn’t do it. My voice was cracking,” he said. “You can’t sing when you’re crying.”
Drummer Adam Berkowitz saw that guitarist Monroe Grisman was also getting emotional and thought, “Hang on guys; hang on.”
It was just five days after Petty died and “the whole crowd was feeling it,” Berkowitz said in an interview this month at Ray’s Deli in Petaluma.
Fans were coming up to band members and saying, “I am so sorry for you guys - you lost a family member.”
Based in Sonoma County - some band members live in Petaluma and Rohnert Park - Petty Theft has been covering Tom Petty’s songs since 2004.
The group is not a Vegas act - they don’t dress in costumes or try to look like Petty or members of his band, the Heartbreakers.
“I’d look awful in a hat and glasses; I’m a stocky guy,” said Durkin, who’s 5-foot-6 and would have a very hard time pulling off Petty’s wispy look.
Yet when he takes the microphone, if you close your eyes, at times you might think you’re listening to Petty.
Since Petty died, Petty Theft has been playing bigger rooms for larger - and more impassioned - audiences, Grisman said.
“We thought Tom would be around for years and years and that our band would end way before Tom’s career would end,” Berkowitz said.
Band members were concerned about appearing to capitalize on Petty’s legacy.
“It’s always been about honoring his music, not trying to create any weird benefit off it,” Berkowitz said. “Just celebrating it.”
Grisman noted that Petty Theft is now playing venues such as the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, and last fall they sold out Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre for the first time.
The band returns to the Mystic on Saturday, and plays at Slim’s in San Francisco on May 18.
They’ll also be at the Novato Art & Wine Festival on June 9 and back at Geyser Peak on June 16.
Though the band has been playing Petty’s songs for many years, they said the music never gets old for them or for their fans.
“We can play for two or three hours straight and pretty much everyone knows every song, whether or not they realized it before the show,” Grisman said.
Petty Theft goes deep into Petty’s songbook, playing the hits but also sharing lesser-known gems with their fans.
What’s astonishing about Petty’s songwriting is “how he chisels a song and makes a story within two minutes,” Durkin said. “He’s one of the best.”
To keep it fresh, band members seek to put themselves into the music.
“We bring our own essence to it,” he said. “We throw in our own arrangements and our own phrasing. Some (songs) we do faster, some slower.”
Berkowitz added that Petty Theft “feels like an original band that has a ghostwriter.”
The son of mandolin legend David Grisman, Monroe Grisman said that years ago, when he was playing original music with indie bands, he looked down a bit on tribute bands (groups that cover other musicians’ songs).
But then Monroe Grisman joined Petty Theft, which plays only Petty songs, reinvigorating the group, said his bandmates, and he changed his tune.
“It’s just about playing music. When you think about it, a lot of bands play covers. Bluegrass bands, they’re playing covers of old songbooks,” Grisman said.
“Look at classical music, I mean, hey, they’re still covering Mozart and Bach when you go to the symphony, you’re seeing a tribute show and a celebration of that music.”
Grisman said his father “appreciates and respects” what he’s doing and sat in with Petty Theft once at the Mystic when the elder Grisman lived in Petaluma.
“We are starting to play venues that he played,” Monroe Grisman said of his father.
“And when we played the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, that was the first time that we played a room where Tom Petty had played.”
Petty Theft plays about 50 shows a year and has reached a moderate level of success, but the band members still have day jobs and expect to keep them.
They play for the love of the music, they said, and share a long history together.
Berkowitz, Grisman and bassist Django Bayless went to high school together in Mill Valley and put together a side band called The 85s for their 20th high school reunion in 2005.
One of Petty Theft’s most memorable moments came a couple of years ago at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Music Hall when Steve Ferrone, a drummer for Petty’s Heartbreakers, sat in with them.
“I’m looking over to my left and I’m playing drums on a Tom Petty song with one of my heroes,” Berkowitz said.
“As a drummer growing up, I knew about him as a kid. It’s like being on your neighborhood basketball court and Steph Curry comes up and says, ‘Can I join you?’ ”
Durkin said that early in his music career, as a singer-songwriter playing original stuff, he didn’t give much credit to tribute bands.
Later, when Petty Theft was opening for longstanding Neil Diamond tribute band Super Diamond, Durkin approached Super Diamond frontman Randy Cordeiro.
“I just want to tell you,” Durkin said to Cordeiro, “I wasn’t into what you were doing, and now I’m here doing it because of you. I really appreciate it - good for you to be thinking about that ahead of the game.”
Cordeiro’s reply: “Welcome to the dark side.”
Durkin, who works during the day at United Markets in San Anselmo, says he’s playing more in his 50s than he did in his 20s or 30s.
“Who thought I’d be doing this now at 57 years old?” he said,.
Berkowitz said Petty’s death remains “a huge shock,” but that band members feel a greater responsibility to his fans now.
“Tom really had a huge impact musically,” he said. “He really was one of the greatest American songwriters. He was a treasure, and we try our best to fully honor that.”
Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.