After its members got together at Auburn Public Theater's weekly open mic night, Petty Thieves was formed in May 2017. As its name suggests, the band covers the music of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, as well as Mudcrutch, the band where Petty began his rise to fame, and The Traveling Wilburys, his supergroup with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison.
Then, five months and one Petty Thieves show later, Petty passed away in October. After that, the band took on a new meaning, said member James Balloni, 27, of Aurora.
"We wanted to make sure we keep the music going as much as possible," he said.
Petty Thieves will do just that Saturday at the 34th annual CNY TomatoFest in downtown Auburn. It's one of almost 20 bands performing on three stages that day, which will also include Max Man Reptile Rescue and family activities at Auburn Public Theater, festival customs the Tomato Parade, veggie art and Wegmans cupcakes in the Exchange Street area, a finale concert featuring Jukin' Bone at the theater that night, and more. Proceeds from the event, as well as canned goods that will be collected there, support Cayuga County food pantries.
Petty Thieves will perform at 4:30 p.m. on the west Genesee Street stage. With only an hour, the band wouldn't be able to play all of Petty's hits even if it wanted to, Balloni said. Though it favors "American Girl," "Free Fallin'" and faithful versions of other songs the whole audience can recite, Balloni also likes to perform deeper cuts from Petty's catalog, and sometimes jam at the end.
Some of his favorites come from Mudcrutch, whose songs are more raw and southern. After seeing the reformed band in 2016, Balloni said its music became some of his favorite Petty material.
"Hopefully those speak to somebody and somebody's listening," he said of the deep cuts Petty Thieves performs.
Balloni is joined in Petty Thieves by Sam Pruyn, Loren Miller, "Oz" and Rich Howard. Balloni, Pruyn and Miller met at Auburn Public Theater open mics, where Pruyn suggested forming a band around the acoustic Petty covers Balloni was performing there. The three then recruited the other two members, and as of this summer, they became one of the busier cover bands in the area.
"There are a lot of really good classic rock bands in the Auburn area, and the way we stay kind of relevant is we do something a little bit different," Balloni said.
Five questions with James Balloni of Petty Thieves
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Q. What's your favorite song to play live?
A. I'll have to give you two for that one. My favorite song is "King's Highway," a deeper track from "Into the Great Wide Open," and the band does a really nice job with it. The other one would have to be "American Girl." We always end the show with that song and it gets the crowd wound up, and I get to do the solo at the end. I usually play rhythm in this band, but that's one of the leads I play.
Q. What's the first concert you remember seeing?
A. The first big rock 'n' roll concert I went to was Tom Petty. My mom and one of her friends brought me and one of my friends to see them at Darien Lake. The Allman Brothers were the opening act. When the Heartbreakers came out and hit the opening chords of "Listen to Her Heart," I was sold and became a big fan.
Q. Who's your biggest musical influence?
A. When I was younger, what got me into playing guitar and wanting to be in a band was the harder rock stuff, like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Later on, when I saw that first Tom Petty show, they kind of took over.
Q. What's one venue you've always wanted to play but haven't had a chance to yet?
A. I'd like to get into del Lago (Resort & Casino). We've been really lucky that we've been able to do Treleaven in King Ferry, which I'd say is one of the best outdoor venues in the area. We also got to do the Morgan Opera House in Aurora, which is one of my favorites — really good sound, really intimate.
Q. What's your "desert island" album?
A. "Wildflowers" by Tom Petty.