In the early ’90s, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were between two worlds.
Petty himself was fresh off the success of his debut solo album, Full Moon Fever, but only a few years away from his most poignant songwriting period, which would yield much of the material included on Wildflowers. Somewhere in the middle, there was 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, the band’s eighth studio LP, for which Petty reunited with the Heartbreakers but brought along his Full Moon Fever producer Jeff Lynne. That decision initially put off the Heartbreakers, but the success of singles like “Learning to Fly” made it a bit easier to look past.
“That’s the paradox of the whole thing,” Petty noted in the 2005 book, Conversations with Tom Petty, “I think they were kind of pleased with it. And it did well for us, and we went on to perform everything live. … I think whatever their hang-ups were kind of dissipated once the record was done. Then they felt good about it.”
When the tour launched in Denver on Aug. 29, 1991, the audience view wasn’t of your typical rock show. An elaborate set design featured a large, storybook-styled tree with a staircase leading down to the stage, along with dangling chandeliers. The mystical-looking layout was created by Jim Lenahan, who would later design several more Petty tours in the mid-2000s, as well as stages for Don Henley, Santana, Marty Stuart and more.
“It’s been maybe two years since we played in front of people,” Petty told MTV at the time, “so I’m kinda jazzed up right now.”
But on the tour’s first night, Petty was so ill that his manager had to coax him into performing. “That’s all part of life on the road,” guitarist Mike Campbell said. “The show must go on and all that.” (“I was just up all night and didn’t sleep,” Petty assured, “I think I’m okay now.”)
The Heartbreakers were joined by a special guest, Texas blues-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Whitley, as they made their way across the U.S. and then on to Europe for a total of 64 concerts in eight months, wrapping up on April 2, 1992 in Malmo, Sweden. Average set lists included multiple songs from Into the Great Wide Open, though they were nearly evenly balanced out with Full Moon Fever material, along with a handful of tried and true fan favorites like “American Girl,” “Refugee” and “You Got Lucky.” Sprinkled amongst the originals were a few covers, including Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” and Van Morrison‘s “I’m Tired Joey Boy.”
Those unable to catch the tour in person were in luck: A full-length concert film, 1992’s Take the Highway Live, was released as a TV special, highlighting the show’s dramatic stage lighting and the crowd’s raw energy.
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Live in 1991 on ‘Into the Great Wide Open’ Tour
And in October 1991, the band paid a visit to the Saturday Night Live studios, performing “Into the Great Wide Open” and “Kings Highway.”
As proof that the Heartbreakers were shifting toward a new musical era, this would be the last tour featuring original drummer Stan Lynch, who formally left the band in 1994, replaced by Steve Ferrone. After concluding the tour in 1992, Petty would spend most of the next two years off the road, working on the songs that would ultimately appear on Wildflowers.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, ‘Into the Great Wide Open’ Tour, Average Set List
1. “Kings Highway”
2. “Too Good to Be True”
3. “I Won’t Back Down”
4. “Free Fallin'”
5. “Out in the Cold”
6. “Psychotic Reaction” (Count Five cover)
7. “Ben’s Boogie”
8. “Don’t Come Around Here No More”
9. “Learning to Fly”
10. “Listen to Her Heart”
11. “Into the Great Wide Open”
12. “American Girl”
14. “Yer So Bad”
15. “You Got Lucky”
16. “Love Is a Long Road”
18. “Runnin’ Down a Dream
19. “Makin’ Some Noise”
20. “The Waiting”
21. “Built to Last”
Tom Petty Albums Ranked
He’s a rock ‘n’ roll rarity: an artist who was consistent until the very end.