(A version of this article appeared originally in Wilkes-Barre, PA’s The Weekender)
A pair of musically inclined friends are cruising down the highway in a van, singing along to one of their all-time favorite artists, their buddies are dozing in the back. It hits them. Why not start a band? Oh yeah. That’s right. The duo already in bands.
The Tom Petty Appreciation Band is a NEPA supergroup of sorts. Think Traveling Wilburys: Musicians from other bands teaming up periodically to play together in a fun side project.
“It’s real. It’s rock and roll. There’s no gimmick,” said lead vocalist and guitarist Pat Finnerty. “We love Tom Petty, and we get to play these songs that we love, that everyone loves, and have fun. It just kind of clicked and we kept it going.”
Finnerty plays bass in local original band, And the Moneynotes, and his long-time friend Bill Orner is ATM’s manager. On their travels (to places like the massive music festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas) they would listen to Petty, usually post-“Full Moon Fever” era. During one of those late-night dashboard jam sessions came the inspiration for the appreciation band. Orner, who also plays drums in The Orner Brothers, naturally took on that role in the new band. They rounded out the lineup with Pat Flynn (lead guitar) and Mark Kiesinger (bass), both of Underground Saints, and Kevin Williams (keyboards). They played their first gig in February at The Bog in Scranton and since then have been doing about a show per month.
Finnerty said they chose the name “appreciation band” over “tribute band” because of their decision to play a good amount of album cuts, hoping those lesser-known songs will become well-known. Finnerty has seen Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers about a half dozen times (he said his first was probably the best concert he’d been to) and explains that with a career spanning more than 30 years and only 20-25 songs to perform at a show, Petty seemed to fill his setlist with just hits.
“Take ‘Free Fallin’.’ That’s a great song, but you’re gonna hear it in the dentist chair, you’re gonna hear it at the supermarket, you’re just gonna hear it,” said Finnerty. “But they’re all good songs. They’d be hits if they were played on the radio. I’ve always felt that way. If people don’t know these songs, they should. You just have to listen to them a few times to get into them. They’re well-crafted, catchy, great songs. I don’t know why ‘Free Girl Now’ isn’t an enormous hit.”
Yet, he knows people crave the upbeat, familiar hits, so half the band’s typical setlist is hits, such as “Breakdown,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Learning to Fly,” “I Need to Know,” and perhaps Petty’s most recognized song.
“The crowd really likes ‘American Girl.’ That’s always fun, and if we didn’t play it, people would ask for their money back,” Finnerty said with a laugh.
Finnerty’s love of the later-era Petty is reflected in the songs they choose to perform, many off his favorite album, “Echo.”
“‘Walls’ is always good and ‘Change of Heart,’ Kevin sings great harmony on that,” said Finnerty. “‘Room at the Top’ is one of the best songs he has ever written, Pat does a great job with the guitar solo on it.”
With decades of consistent airplay and, before they went digital, jukeboxes always having a Petty “Greatest Hits” CD, it’s no wonder Finnerty saw groups of 21-year-olds singing along with him.
“When I think contemporary artists, he’s who I think of,” he said. “He’s real, he’s genuine. He sings songs anyone can relate to. You can hear it in his voice; he’s very sincere about what he’s saying. I feel it when I’m singing them.”
And, anyone who has seen the Tom Petty Appreciation Band will know Finnerty nails the part, inflection and all. Well, maybe just the voice.
“I’m 6-foot-5. I couldn’t look the part if I tried,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s natural to sing like him in certain songs. I’ve been listening and singing to these songs so long, I have my own take on some, too, something I think he would appreciate if he ever heard.”
Since the Tom Petty Appreciation Band is a side project, the band does not have a Web site and is pretty much taking it one show at a time.
“We were thinking about Twitter or Facebook, but we hear these days everyone’s on MySpace,” Finnerty joked.
Until then, he says folks can check entertainment listings for upcoming dates.
“We’ll gonna play a couple Tom Petty songs. We’ll finish one Tom Petty song, and then play another Tom Petty song,” he said with a laugh of an upcoming gig. “If you are a fan of him in any form, you’d enjoy the show. Even for people who don’t know him, he just has that instant appeal.
“For me personally, I like to keep shows as fun and casual as possible. I like people to smile and have fun when they listen to music. We really feel passionate about playing this material that means so much to so many people.”
It’s somewhat poetic that Finnerty’s favorite Petty album is called “Echo.” By definition, echo means “something similar” or “repeated.” That’s exactly what he and his band are doing: continuing to play familiar music that has entertained generations, songs associated with a lifetime of memories, music people want to hear again and again.