Popular tribute band throws one hell of a ‘Petty Party’

North Bay rockers pay tribute to the late Tom Petty|

Monroe Grisman recalls the moment he was first bitten by the Tom Petty bug.

“For me, it was back in the sixth-grade, hearing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the radio,” says Grisman, a guitarist and vocalist in the local Tom Petty tribute band Petty Theft. “I would listen to music in my bedroom every night, probably on KMEL, and they would play ‘Breakdown’ and ‘American Girl’ a lot. Tom’s songs have always, like for many others, been part of the fabric of the soundtrack going on in my life.”

Petty died last fall of an accidental drug overdose. He left behind 15 albums, including a pair with the super-group the Traveling Wilburys, having risen to fame with a string of hits that included “Learning to Fly,” “The Waiting,” “You Got Lucky,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin.’?”

For the members of Petty Theft, news of the Florida rocker’s unexpected death came as a shock.

“It really affected all of us quite a bit,” says Grisman, a former Petaluma resident. “We had a show on the Saturday of the week it happened, and that was the hardest show I have ever had to do in my life. Folks in the crowd were in tears and it really got to us, too. It was like that quite a bit in the shows that followed, sharing tears with the audiences.”

Since then, he points out, the shows have taken on more of a positive tone, filled with joy and love - for Tom Petty and his musical legacy.

“We have always considered ourselves more of a celebration than a tribute band,” Grisman says, “but now the word ‘tribute’ definitely takes on a whole new meaning for us.”

Since 2003, when lead vocalist and guitarist Dan Durkin and bassist/vocalist Django Bayless first indulged their obsession with all things Petty, the band has rocked up to 55 shows a year, while spotlighting some of the best players on the North Bay club scene. Petty’s passing has not dampened fans enthusiasm for what Petty Theft brings. In the past year alone, the road has carried the band to Portland, Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City, as well as numerous other cities throughout the West.

Through it all, Grisman and company never tire of playing Petty’s material.

“We do a pretty good job of changing up our set lists and playing different songs,” Grisman says. “There are so many songs, and we are still trying to work up more of them, too. It keeps the shows fresh, for us and the fans. It’s really such a dynamic songbook, a real pleasure to play.”

While the band has gone through a few personnel changes, the core lineup has been together for over 10 years now. These days, Petty Theft is Durkin, Bayless, Grisman, guitarist Michael Papenburg, keyboardist John Robin Varn, and drummer Adam “Bagel” Berkowitz - veterans of such local bands as the Mother Truckers, American Drag, East of Eden, the Jerry Hannan Band and the 85’s.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Grisman says. “Really good musicians, and a vast treasure trove of incredible rock ’n’ roll songs. That is what really makes the whole thing click for us. We genuinely have a great time playing together and doing this music, and the folks who come to the shows really pick up on that.”

In the wake of Petty’s death, Petty Theft has been touring extensively and audiences have gotten considerably larger.

“The shows are definitely a catharsis for the fans - and us,” Grisman has found. “We hear that a lot from folks after the shows, that it really helped them to hear this music again in a positive live setting. People have always come to our shows to sing loud and dance, and now I think folks are finding a community of like-minded fans to share in that with.”

That, he says, is an extremely positive thing.

“Petty fans are loyal, fun-loving and passionate about the songs and the music,” Grisman allows. “They like to have a good time. Check out the Facebook Fan page called Tom Petty Nation and you’ll see what I mean for yourself. Or, come to one of our shows. It’s definitely one hell of a Petty party.”

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