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, May 19, 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.”
If You Go
Who: Petty Theft
When: 9:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19
Where: Mystic Theatre, 21 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma
Information: 707-765-2121, mystictheatre.com