Tom Petty tribute band leader tells Villagers music changed when Heartbreakers’ singer died

Death adds mystical power to the music of a fallen rock star. For those who grew up with the songs of Tom Petty, his music provided a backdrop to the defining moments of their lives.

So it was for Tom Brademeyer, lead singer of Free Fallin, a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tribute band. The group played a gritty and raucous sold out show Thursday at Savannah Center.

Free Fallin

Brademeyer, like so many others of his generation, was infused with the spirit of Petty’s music during the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Brademeyer has been with the tribute band for a decade, but last October, when Petty died at 66, something changed — with the music and the audience.

Tom Brademeyer

“For 10 years we paid tribute to the legacy of his music, but when Tom Petty died it was different,” Brademeyer said before the concert. “When he died, I walked around for five days in a daze, and I was mentally down. But then I realized why his music mattered.
“I came of age with his music, but now it’s more meaningful.  We don’t just play his songs; we share his spirit with the people who loved his music. I know what it means, because I’m one of those people.”
From the rollicking opening number “Running Down a Dream” to the chaotic guitar glory and flash-mob like stage rush of “American Girl,” this was a tribute band show that made Petty come alive once more.
“Let’s all listen to our hearts,” said Brademeyer on stage, looking like the ghost of Tom Petty Past with a top hat, flowing blond hair and sly grin. He held his hand over his heart and said: “Can you feel it?  Can you feel Tom’s spirit? He’s gone but he will never be forgotten.”

Women from The Villages went on stage to join the band Free Fallin on Tom Petty’s song “American Girl.”

The memories linger thanks to Brademeyer and the band: Karl Swartz, lead guitar; Russ Lund, bass; Mark Larsen, drums’ Dale Peterson, keyboards and Craig Wolke, rhythm guitar.
Swartz’s searing guitar riffs and Lund’s thumping bass kept Savannah Center jumping all night long. This is a tight band that has perfected not only Petty and the Heartbreakers’ sound, but also the essence of the music.
“They made it real,” said Villager Nancy Riviello, who attended the concert with her husband, Charles. “I really felt this was the music of Tom Petty, the way he played it.”
And it reached both of them.
“His music was mellow and deep, but it could touch you in a special way,” Charles Riviello said. “And he could rock.”
Rock was the byword of the night as Free Fallin roared through such Petty classics as: “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Refugee” and an audience sing-a-long on “Free Fallin’.”
The band added some soulful instrumental licks on Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions,” and even mashed in a little bit of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack.”
It was fun, but there was also a reflective mood for many in the audience.
“I can remember Tom Petty’s music when I was growing up,” said Greg Parady. “Now when I hear it, it brings back so many memories; but I’m sad that Tom’s not here. “Those songs will always be close to my heart. Free Fallin did a great job tonight and that makes me feel better.”
Everyone in the packed Savannah Center seemed to be feeling good for the concert climax on the second encore, “American Girl.”

Villagers Charles and Nancy Riviello are big fans of Tom Petty.

Brademeyer called up all the “American girls” to the stage. Before long, the Savannah Center stage was populated by female fans who danced, actually played some of the band’s instruments and celebrated the everlasting Petty party vibe.
“It was great being up there,” Nancy Riviello said. “I felt like I was part of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”
So did Tom Brademeyer.
“It’s so special to be playing here so close to Tom Petty’s hometown (Gainesville),” he said. “For us, it’s almost spiritual.”

On this night in The Villages, the eternal rock and roll spirit of Tom Petty was still going strong.