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Tom Petty tribute band, coming to SteelStacks, finds new inspiration in old album

Damn The Torpedoes.jpg
Damn The Torpedoes
Damn The Torpedoes, a Tom Petty tribute band, will play at Musikfest Cafe at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem on Jan. 27. Members are, from left, Ross Kantor, Jon Provan, Gary Castelluccio, Rich Kubicz (as Tom Petty) and Lee Boice.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — For 15 years, Tom Petty tribute band Damn the Torpedoes has had a successful run — especially after Petty died in 2017 and fans lost the chance to see the real performer live.

But for most of that time, the only new Petty songs released were on 2014's "Hypnotic Eye," one of his least popular albums. So Damn the Torpedoes' set list has remained relatively static.

  • Damn The Torpedoes, a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers tribute band, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, at Musikfest Cafe at SteelStacks in Bethlehem
  • Tickets are $40 (balcony) or $20 (general admission standing) at www.steelstacks.org or 610-332-1300
  • The band will play a show of Petty hits, favorites and songs from the album 'Wildflowers'

Then in 2020, Petty's family and bandmates released "Wildflowers & All the Rest," an expanded version of his 1994 solo album "Wildflowers," his second-best-selling disc, with previously deleted songs and demos.

That gave Damn the Torpedoes a trove of new material in which listeners were interested. So the band spent months rehearsing the whole album — which also includes the hits "You Don't Know How It Feels," "You Wreck Me" and "It's Good to Be King," as well as fan favorites "Time to Move On" and the title cut, Damn the Torpedoes singer and guitarist Rich Kubicz said.

Kubicz said the band now will play shows that include "Wildflowers" in its entirety.

The band's concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27, at Musikfest Cafe at SteelStacks in Bethlehem won't be among them, but Kubicz said attendees still can expect to hear a good number of "Wildflowers" songs.

“Here’s the thing with ‘Wildflowers’: It’s not for everybody, because there’s a lot of slower songs on it," Kubicz said in a recent phone call from his new home in New Jersey, where he said he spends time off the road remodeling.

With general-audience shows, “you never know what the audience is going to be like," he said. "If they’re casual Tom Petty fans, there’s going to be about three or four songs that they’re not going to dig. If they’re real big, diehard Tom Petty fans, they’re going to love that we’re doing ‘em, ‘cause they’re going to say, ‘Wow, they actually did that song! Who does that song?’"

Wildflowers & All The Rest
The cover of Tom Petty's "Wildflowers & All The Rest"

The difference of 'Wildflowers'

In 40 years on the charts, Tom Petty had more than 40 Top 25 hits, plus deep-cut fan favorites.

So Damn the Torpedoes had a repertoire of about 60 Petty songs, Kubicz said.

But with "Wildflowers," Kubicz said, “the songs are darker. They’re more serious, introspective songs, as opposed to the hit songs like ‘Refugee’ and ‘Don’t Do Me Like That,’ and even ‘Free Falling.’

"All of those songs seem to hit a larger audience, whereas the ‘Wildflowers’ songs, they’re a lot more meaningful, I think, to Tom. As opposed to just writing a song that people are going to love, he wrote the songs for himself.”

Kubicz said that as Damn The Torpedoes learned and rehearsed the "Wildflowers" songs, they realized, “There’s so many similarities from one song to another. And yet, when he puts the melodies together on them, or the way he progresses the chords, he makes it a completely different song. But you can tell that they’re all from the very same album.

“That’s one of the things we noticed about it – how similar everything was. …You can see how all of that happened all at once. He had a mindset and he did all the songs pretty much very, very close. They belong together, let’s put it that way.”

"If they’re real big, diehard Tom Petty fans, they’re going to love that we’re doing ‘em, ‘cause they’re going to say, ‘Wow, they actually did that song! Who does that song?’"
Rich Kubicz, singer and guitarist for the band Damn The Torpedoes

Deciding to do 'Wildflowers'

While the recent re-release of "Wildflowers" and having the new material were important reasons for Damn The Torpedoes to perform the album, there was another, equally important, consideration, Kubicz said.

"Tom Petty had said he always wanted to do a tour of the 'Wildflowers' show — in which case, he would have been more successful, ‘cause it’s his songs, and most of the Tom Petty people coming, he’s going to have enough of the Tom Petty fans that are going to know the stuff," he said.

“We just figured, ‘Why don't we do it, because he can’t.’"

But Kubicz also said many of the new songs simply are just really good.

“It’s so wild to listen to that box set, to hear all those songs that never made the light of day and think, ‘How could he not have put this song on the album?’" Kubicz said.

He pointed to the song "Keep a Little Soul," which was released right after Petty died.

"I’d never heard it before — immediately we started playing it," Kubicz said. "I think we are able to say we were the very first band to ever do that song live, because I don’t think he ever did it live. And I’ve never seen anybody else do it live.

“There’s a song called ‘Driving Down to Georgia,' which is a Wildflowers-era song, which should have been on the album and wasn’t. That's a song we’re probably going to keep in our repertoire even though nobody knows the song. We’re excited about doing that. It’s a killer, that song, it really is. I love it.”

The permanence of Petty

When Kubicz decided in early 2007 to take the career path of playing in a tribute band, he said he chose Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a matter of logic.

“I can sing like him and I can play him and I look a little like him — you know, long blond hair — so that was just a natural thing,” Kubicz said. "So the Tom Petty thing was just the perfect fit.”

Damn The Torpedoes was named after Petty’s 1979 breakthrough album (and still the Heartbreakers’ best seller), with his breakthrough hits "Don't Do Me Like That," "Refugee" and "Here Comes My Girl."

It wasn’t a particularly high-profile time for the Heartbreakers: the group hadn’t had a real hit since “You Don’t Know How It Feels” a dozen years earlier and hadn’t even had a new album in five years.

But “I really enjoyed the fact that there’s so much in his catalog,” Kubicz said.

Just a year after Kubicz started the tribute band Damn the Torpedoes, Petty and his band were chosen to play the Super Bowl halftime show, and suddenly they were back in vogue. And Damn the Torpedoes suddenly got busier, Kubicz said.

And it got even busier after Petty, then 66, died of an overdose of pain medication in 2017.

In 2018, Damn the Torpedoes played the Levitt Pavilion at SteelStacks and attracted its largest crowd ever — about 5,000 people, Kubicz said. The response was so great that the band uses footage of the show in its promotional material.

“I didn’t realize until afterward, seeing the video, how tremendous it was,” Kubicz said.

Damn The Torpedoes
Screen grab from promotional video for Damn The Torpedoes.
Courtesy Damn The Torpedoes
Tom Petty tribute band Damn The Torpedoes drew more than 5,000 people to Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks in Bethlehem when it played a free summer show there in 2018.

Interest in Petty continues to grow, as was shown by the release of "Wildflowers and All The Rest," Kubicz said.

His band also continues to sell out shows, he said. The Musikfest Cafe show is nearly sold out.

"Life is just getting better and better," Kubicz said. "The band is getting better. We feel like we’ve reached a pinnacle of musicianship and performance, and yet, one show gets better than the other. I have no complaints, let’s put it that way. I’m not getting bored. I’m moving forward.

“Every audience feeds us. We can feel the audience loving what they’re hearing. And to me, there’s no better reward than that. And so that’s what keeps me going — to play great music and to do it for an appreciative audience and the guys in the band are still having fun.”