There was a soft breeze in the air and a subtle aroma of marijuana. Thousands gathered around the Dreamville main stage at Depot Park, drinking beer, laughing and talking.
Children shuffled along the grass, hula hooped and frolicked.
College students and adults swayed back and forth, danced and sang along to “American Girl.”
This was Gainesville’s birthday celebration of its native rock ’n’ roll icon, Tom Petty. He would have turned 69 on Sunday.
More than 8,000 people traveled from all over the country for the Tom Petty Birthday Bash 2019 to gather in the place that inspired some of the most well-known rock ’n’ roll lyrics to come out of Gainesville. The celebration united Gainesville’s community of locals, musicians and artists who wanted to feel the spirit of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers this weekend.
Birthday Bash Coordinator Sarah Hedges said her husband Jason, the frontman for cover band Heavy Petty, wanted to start the free festival after Petty died on Oct. 2, 2017.
Jason Hedges created a five-hour tribute show in honor of Petty’s birthday, Sarah Hedges said. More than 3,000 people came to the show in 2017.
“It was such an amazing night,” Sarah Hedges said. “People wanted to be in Gainesville, where Tom was from.”
Birthday Bash became a tradition that night, she said, and it gets bigger every year.
This year, she and the other coordinators displayed Tom Petty memorabilia, such as his black leather guitar strap and hand-written lyrics to “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
Additionally, the proceeds from the festival’s VIP packages, food, drink and merchandise sales will go to the UF Health Shands’ Arts in Medicine program, Sarah Hedges said.
Birthday Bash offered attendees several packages priced up to $189 that included merchandise and exclusive access to its kickoff party, all to contribute to Arts in Medicine.
“We’re kind of putting Gainesville back on the music map,” she said. “Our dream is to keep growing and to bring in top-talent rock ’n’ roll bands.”
Despite a delay due to the weather on Saturday, fans continued to dance in ponchos and umbrellas throughout the weekend. The party continued under Sunday’s sunny blue skies.
Bands of rock, alternative, country and Americana genres played original songs as well as Petty covers. Local artists such as Edan Archer and Dixie Desperados drew audiences in with their unworried Southern, folk-rock sounds.
“It [music] brings people together,” Birthday Bash master of ceremonies Gregg Jones said. “It’s a great commemoration of a homeboy from Gainesville since this was his home where he first discovered music.”
The main cover band Heavy Petty performed at 8:30 p.m. after the crowd gathered for a fireworks show and a happy birthday Petty sing-along.
Meri Nantz, an attendee, said she has lived in Gainesville since 1985 and has always loved Petty’s music. Her favorite song is “I Won’t Back Down,” she said.
“He’s the soundtrack of my life,” Nantz said. “I think it’s great for Gainesville, and it brings people from all walks of life together who really have a love for Tom and a love for rock ’n’ roll.”
Nantz said this is her second year attending Birthday Bash. She said she saw people of all ages attend the festival and thinks everyone can embrace the music and its hometown spirit.
“There’s a shared spirit, almost like a camaraderie,” she said. “We have a common bond.”
The bond was apparent at the end of the night when Heavy Petty’s rendition of “Free Fallin’” rallied the audience to dance and sing with their friends and loved ones.
“I love how Tom’s music connects to many people,” Sarah Hedges said. “Tom was an incredible songwriter. Jason always says you can hear a little bit of Gainesville in all of his songs.”