Of the major American songwriters of the past 40 years, Tom Petty is perhaps hardest to pigeonhole.
While Springsteen and Dylan's shtick was long ago cast in concrete, Petty remains a mercurial figure, a populist whose anthemic songs are tinged with edge-of-town weirdness.
Or maybe we simply haven't seen enough of him lately to get a sense of where he's at. It's two decades since he performed in Ireland and the first date of his new European tour has a novelty factor that ensures a sell-out attendance.
The last time he played here Petty was in the midst of a surprise mid-career upswing. The one-two punch of Full Moon Fever and Into The Great Wide Open had confirmed him as laureate of off-beam Americana, a songwriter as evocative and visionary as Bruce or Bob but without the tendency to lapse into caricature (with the possible exception of Neil Young you struggle to think of a contemporary who has stayed as spiky and vigorous through the decades).
Supported by grizzled backing crew The Heartbreakers, he might be expected to make amends for his long absence with a greatest hits set. As anyone who has watched Peter Bogdanovich's Petty biopic Runnin' Down A Dream will know, however, the 61-year-old has never been a simple crowd-pleaser and, while tonight has plenty of hits, there are off-beat, even indulgent, moments, too.
Curios songs such as the wigged-out 'It's Good To Be King' and a maraca-shaking version of Fleetwood Mac's 'Oh Well' are worth putting up with, though. For one thing, they're fantastic rockers, rendered by a super-slick troupe of veterans. And anyway, it isn't long before the vintage material is uncorked.
The room erupts as guitarist Mike Campbell slides into the opening chords of 'I Won't Back Down,' the paean to bloody-mindedness that might well serve as metaphor for Petty's life in music (he has had a multitude of face-offs with record companies and tour promoters). This is followed by a limber 'Here Comes My Girl' and a tender reading of 'Handle with Care' by the Traveling Wilburys, the 1980s' supergroup Petty put together with George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan.
Best of all is 'Free Fallin',' a song about romantic abandon that captures the blissful disorientation of passions run amok. Petty has taken his sweet time but this was a return worth holding out for.