Petty Theft steals the show... Tribute band from Novato excels

Songs already written. Check. Reputation established long ago. Double-check. Instant fame and fortune. Not so fast.

OK, so it's never about the money. Maybe rarely. Or fame, really. Not when you're a tribute band. But that's fine with Monroe Grisman, a major cog in Petty Theft, "celebrating the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers" that comes to the Empress Theatre in Vallejo on Sept. 12. .

It's been 11 years since a bunch of guys in Marin and Sonoma started the salute to Petty, a 2002 Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has sold more than 80 million copies of his tunes.

It all started "very innocently" with some guys doing cover songs of numerous bands, said Grisman, who joined Petty Theft four years into the undertaking.

"I never expected it to get this far, said Grisman, a Tamalpais High School graduate. "I don't think anyone anticipated doing this 10, 11 years later. But we're stronger than ever. Every year we seem to get a little bigger, a little better in terms of audiences and places we play."

Those hole in the wall joints seem like a distant memory with elegant venues such as the 470-seat Empress, now the standard.

"It's a perfect setting to hear this music," said Grisman, who couldn't put a limit on how big Petty Theft could be. Not after seeing a video of a Pink Floyd tribute band in Australia attracting 10,000 fans.

"Some tribute bands out there are doing pretty big things," Grisman said. "It does seem far-fetched, this tribute thing. We'll see where these things go over the years."

There's no reason the real Tom Petty — or any of the authentic stars behind tribute bands — wouldn't accept the tribute bands. As long as the music is stellar, Grisman said.

"Imitation is the highest form of flattery," Grisman said. "I don't think a lot of these artists think of it too much. They've had a really good run and have had a lot of success and made a lot of money. If I were in their position, I'd probably appreciate the ones that do it really well. And grimace at the ones that don't."

It's all about having the body of work, Grisman said, though he's heard some tribute bands where he wondered "How's that going to work? That (real) band only had two or three songs. In that instance, they must be hard-core fans and love all the material."

That's not a problem with Petty Theft, the guitarist said.

"We can play for three hours and everyone (in the audience) knows every song," Grisman said. "We've heard a thousand times, 'I didn't realize how many great songs Tom Petty has written.' We're reminding people what a great songwriter Tom Petty is and how great the Heartbreakers are."

Sure, it's easy in a sense that the material is already there, Grisman said.

"But you still have to be good at it," he said. "You have to be a great band in order to be able to do this for 10 years."

Though there may be instant name and song recognition, even a tribute band has to build a fan base, Grisman said.

"It's taken us a long time to build a reputation for doing something well," he said.

Petty Theft, noted Grisman, doesn't try to dress up and look like Petty and his band or use guitars of the group's peak years.

"What we do is celebrate the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," Grisman said. "We're very true to the music, where I'm not going to mess around with the melody line of 'Breakdown.' We play songs the way they need to be heard."

Having fun on stage is also important, Grisman said.

"People seem to really enjoy it," he said. "They come to the show and are able to dance and sing all night long and have a good time."

Besides, there's something to be said about paying $15 or $20 to hear a solid tribute band than $50 to $150 for the real deal, Grisman said.

"It's money well spent," he said.

And if Tom Petty ever did catch a Petty Theft gig?

"I would hope he would really dig it and walk away feeling good about what we're doing and proud that his music was being represented in such a way," Grisman said.

Richard Freeman