Spitting Image

A band of brothers sticks together and when they enjoy their work and the company, it equals lifelong success. The guys of Breakdown: Tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are longtime friends that have become like family, and have stuck together with this tribute for 22 years.

“We’re all friends and we travel well together,” lead singer Scott Blackwell said. “So you get that bond of, yeah you’re onstage performing as a band, but you’re also onstage performing as a family. That projects to the audience. We’re having a blast together, because we’re all doing what we love to do and we’re doing it with basically our brothers.”

Along with Blackwell in the role of Petty, the band includes Eric Garcia (guitars, back-up vocals, mandolin, harmonica), Ricky Williams (bass, back-up vocals), Mike Spinelle (drums), and Tim Rovnak (keyboards, accordion).

All of these musicians actually started together in a Rob Zombie tribute, called White Zombie, in which Garcia plays the lead.

“All of us are from the same tribute, the White Zombie tribute,” Garcia said. “Basically Scott and I just switch positions. I’m the vocalist on the Zombie and he’s lead guitar, and then we just flip flop. When we do the Petty, he’s the vocalist and I’m the lead guitar.”

It was during a White Zombie show that the idea occurred to try a Petty tribute.

“The Tom Petty thing wasn’t even on our radar,” Blackwell said. “We were actually doing a Rob Zombie show at a local club and we had some technical difficulties, so rather than have dead air, I turned back to the band and said, ‘Hey, let’s play ‘Breakdown’ from Tom Petty just to fill the air space while we take care of the technical difficulties.’ The crowd liked it and at the following rehearsal Eric said, ‘Dude, we have to try it.’ So it kind of spawned from there. We picked a couple of songs and the following week at rehearsal we fired up the instruments and started to play ‘American Girl’ and haven’t looked back since.”

Although the intent to perform as Petty hadn’t crossed his mind prior to that night, Blackwell had been receiving comparisons to the singer since junior high.

“Yeah it’s weird, as far back as seventh grade, people were always coming up saying I look like Tom Petty. I get it all the time,” Blackwell said. “Even now if I’m sitting somewhere, someone will come up and say, ‘Hey, I don’t mean to bother you, but has anybody ever said you look like Tom Petty?’ So it was kind of a natural thing when we were playing at that club and I sang Tom Petty. It was like, ‘Well I have the looks so I guess let’s try it.’”

Not only does he have the looks, Blackwell has the voice to portray Petty, too.

“I do try a little bit to sound like him, but mostly it’s my natural singing voice, luckily,” Blackwell said. “So I didn’t have to really stress over trying to sound like Tom. It comes pretty natural, his vocal range and the tone in his voice.”

He did however have to put in the work to imitate Petty’s stage presence.

“Well early on I diligently studied like an actor would study films — I watched a lot of videos,” Blackwell said. “Luckily, there are a lot of live concert videos and I studied how he moved and the things that he said. Tom didn’t talk very much on stage, but I have a few key things that if somebody in the audience says something, I can answer back with the way Tom would have answered. I deem it as I’m an actor playing the part of Tom Petty in a Tom Petty tribute band. So I approached it that way as if I was an actor preparing for a role.”

After that, it was a matter of consistent practice for the entire band to create the harmony that they bring to the stage, which is partly the magic of this group in particular.

“A lot of tributes just get together three or four times and go play a show and then they don’t have a show for four or five months, then they get together three or four times again,” Garcia said. “We’ve been getting together religiously twice a week since the year 2000. At some points we were three or four times a week. So what that does is it gives us the effect of a group that is constantly touring together, because we literally are constantly playing together.

“Then you add in the fact that none of the members have changed. Most tribute bands have members coming and going one right after the other. So what you get is a show where every hand knows what the other hand is doing because we’ve been doing it together for so long.”

“And we’re actually playing our instruments,” Blackwell added. “We know there’s a lot of tributes out there playing with backup tracks. We pride ourselves on every sound you hear on stage is coming from us.”

Petty recorded dozens of hit singles with the Heartbreakers and as a solo artist. In his career, he sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. With so much material to work with, the guys of Breakdown had a tough time putting together a setlist.

“I was a fan and I liked a lot of his songs, but until we started doing it, I didn’t realize quite how many songs he had that were hits,” Blackwell said. “Which makes it tough when we play a 90-minute show. There’s so many hits, we could play for days and days and never repeat a song and the majority would be hits. But we had to focus on the songs that were being played on the radio. Over the years we’ve just dialed in the show to where basically if somebody didn’t get to see Tom, we try to recreate the same type of concert had they gone to see the real Tom.”

The band has had numerous memorable performances over the past 22 years, but the moment that stands above the rest was playing the day before the 2008 Super Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were the halftime show for the game that year.

“We played the day before the Super Bowl out in the corridor of the stadium, to probably about 15,000-20,000 people,” Blackwell said. “In an interview that they did before they performed, somebody asked Tom, ‘What are your thoughts on a Tom Petty tribute playing the day before you play?’ His answer was, ‘We don’t care as long as they’re not better than us.’ So that was a pretty cool highlight, especially since Tom knew about it and knew we were out there. Even though we didn’t meet him, he knew about us.”

Another place both Blackwell and Garcia count as a favorite, is their performances at the Riverside Resort in Laughlin.

“We love the Riverside and all the stage crew. We keep in constant contact with them over the internet because they’re so cool and we love playing there because it’s the legendary Riverside,” Blackwell said. “That’s one of my favorite stages to play on currently.”

Breakdown will be back on the stage at Don’s Celebrity Theatre Thursday-Sunday, June 9-12. To keep up with the band, visit their website at tompettytribute.com. Sign up for their mailing list to be notified of upcoming performances.