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Thursday, December 07, 2023

Gainesville celebrates rock ‘n’ roll legend Tom Petty despite last year’s controversy

Heartwood hosted Tom Petty Weekend Oct. 20-22

<p>Rob Ellis Peck plays with his band during the Tom Petty Festival at Heartwood Soundstage Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. </p>

Rob Ellis Peck plays with his band during the Tom Petty Festival at Heartwood Soundstage Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

Under the colored lights and fog emitting from the stage, children ran around the venue and couples danced in the moonlight while the crowd sang along to Mudcrutch’s “Scare Easy,” kicking off a memorable weekend for Tom Petty fans. 

Former members of Mudcrutch — the Gainesville-based 1970s band known for launching Tom Petty’s rise to fame — were only one part of a long lineup of musical acts playing Tom Petty Weekend, a three-day festival at Heartwood Soundstage. 

Between Oct. 20 to Oct. 22, more than 3,000 Petty fans gathered to celebrate the life and music of the rock ‘n’ roll legend, who died in October 2017. Tickets ranged from free general admission passes to VIP gold and silver packages, which cost up to $125. 

Rob Nechanicky, a 49-year-old administrator for official fan club Tom Petty Nation, said the festival offered an opportunity for fans from across the country to pay homage to Petty’s legacy in his hometown.

“The magic is here in Gainesville,” he said. “Talking to the locals, you can see why Tom Petty was the person he was.”

Performing acts included Mudcrutch’s guitarist Tom Leadon, The Mudpies featuring Mudcrutch’s bassist Danny Roberts, Jeff Slate, Jake Thistle, Maggie Clifford and more. There were also storytelling sessions with Paul Zollo, the author of “Conversations with Tom Petty,” and some of Petty’s close friends. 

General admission holders could enjoy all outdoor festivities, while VIP gold and silver ticket holders had access to indoor performances and the private storytelling sessions. 

Tom Petty Weekend followed last year’s controversy surrounding celebrations for Petty in Gainesville. In November 2021, the Gainesville City Commission voted to replace the free Annual Tom Petty Birthday Bash in Depot Park with a for-profit event organized by Petty’s daughter Adria. 

Heartwood’s owner and general manager Dave Melosh and producer and volunteer Dan Spiess met with Adria Petty and Keith Eveland, the 58-year-old Tom Petty Nation manager, prior to the event, fan club administrator Brien Norton said. Spiess told The Gainesville Sun the Petty family said they had no plans to proceed with their for-profit festival this year.   

Norton, 61, also said Heartwood worked to make the event representative of Petty’s music legacy. For example, he said, Spiess and Melosh implemented a new sound system that could reach the front and back of the crowd.

Eveland, who has worked with Petty’s management to set up events across the country, was pleased with Heartwood’s Tom Petty Weekend. They wanted to put on an event Petty would be proud of, he said.

The heart of Tom Petty weekend centered around honoring the impact Petty had on the Gainesville music scene and the fans who supported his career from its early beginnings.  

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Rod Guynn, 73, a retired teacher at Belleview High School and Petty’s first cousin, performed at the festival alongside his brother.  Petty was single-minded on pursuing music from the moment he was old enough to choose what he wanted to do, Guynn said. 

“We would listen to Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Ritchie Valens — the famous country and pop music recording artists of the time,” Guynn said. “That was Tom’s favorite thing to do. We had to drag him out…to play softball or play in the creek.”

Petty was already performing in local bands like The Sundowners and The Epics around Gainesville when he was a teenager, Guynn said. During the early ’70s, he said, Mudcrutch was a cover band that would perform Southern rock at Gainesville pubs and UF’s Halloween Ball. 

Because Petty’s career started in Gainesville, Guynn said, it’s important that Heartwood gives

residents of all generations a place to enjoy and hear his music.

“There’s going to be every kind of expression of his music that you can imagine,” he said. “I think it tells how the music speaks to a variety of people, styles and backgrounds.”

Though it has a particular meaning to family members and friends, Petty’s music continues to impact people in all corners of the country. 

Valentina Sawyer, 58, said she traveled to Gainesville with friends to attend all three days of Tom Petty Weekend. 

“It’s like a family, and it’s wonderful,” she said. “We’re so excited — also sad at the same time that we lost our Tom.”

Bob Keppler, 58, has been a fan of Petty since 1980 and flew from Chicago for the festival. Keppler attended with his friend Derek Saunders, 64, who traveled all the way from England to see the performances and storytellings sessions that came with the VIP experience. 

“It’s a closeness,” Saunders said. “It brings us together from very different parts of the world.” 

For some VIP gold ticket holders like attendee David Wood, Tom Petty Weekend introduced them to the city’s music scene. Wood, 64, recently moved from South Florida to Gainesville and has been exploring the local music scene, which has included visits to High Dive and Heartwood, he said.

“It’s a thriving scene from what I can see, especially because of the university and the kids,” Wood said. “[There’s] a little of everything here.”

Wood is happy celebrations have continued, he said, even after controversies with the Tom Petty Birthday Bash. 

Gainesville’s Petty celebrations aren’t over. The Tom Petty Birthday Bash was rebranded as The Bash Music Festival and will be held in Depot Park Nov. 4-6. The festival will include artists who range from rock 'n' roll, Americana, blues, soul and country, according to Bash’s website. There will also be tributes to local legends like Tom Petty, Charles Bradley and Bo Diddley. 

Contact Isabella at Follow her on Twitter @IsabellaMarzban.

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Isabella Marzban

Isabella Marzban is a fourth-year journalism major and an avenue reporter for The Alligator. You'll usually find her going on hikes, listening to classic rock on her record player, and doing yoga with her friends. 

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