"You don't know how it feels," sang the late, sorely missed singer-songwriter Tom Petty on his 1994 hit single of the same name. That track, from his highly regarded solo LP "Wildflowers" (which, like his other "solo" LPs, featured most if not all of his longtime backing band The Heartbreakers) stands as one of dozens of roots-rock tracks recorded by the prolific guitarist and frontman since his career blossomed in the mid-1970s.
While TJ Cronin may not know exactly how it feels "to be real" (as the Petty lyric continues), he certainly knows better than most. For longer than he might care to admit, Cronin has dedicated himself to closely examining the words and music of Petty, and, for the last half-decade, he has put that research to professional use.
Cronin (complete with long, straight blond hair, tinted sunglasses and an omnipresent top hat) portrays the recently deceased Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member onstage in The Petty Hearts, which is billed as "America's definitive tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers."
The quintet, which formed in 2012 in Cooper City, Fla., and is now based in Fort Lauderdale, has earned a regional reputation as an above-average example of the tribute band phenomenon - which finds devoted (if otherwise anonymous) musicians dressing up (in varying degrees) as some of their favorite performing artists and then emulating them in smallish venues to the enraptured delight (or merely quizzical looks) of other fans.
On Nov. 10, the band brings their all-Heartbreakers setlist to the Tybee Post Theater for the first time. It's one of a growing number of road dates that find the group touring outside of their native Sunshine State.
"We've played shows in Virginia, and we'll be in Kentucky in May," says Cronin. "We're also working on some gigs in the Midwest. We love traveling, man. It's like being back in school and taking a field trip with your buddies. We get in the van, share stories, sing songs and listen to comedy specials."
The idea to form a Tom Petty tribute came to Cronin in high school, where he admits to being singularly "obsessed" with the music, attitude and image "the greatest songwriter ever."
"I had an iPod and almost all the time I had Tom Petty playing in my ears," he recalls. "I would go home and learn his songs on the guitar. I would bug the other guys in my early garage bands to learn as many of his songs. On lunch breaks at school, I would sit on a bench and play my favorite Petty tunes."
But there's more to it than just songcraft, adds Cronin. "Tom relates to the underdog. He speaks to the little guy. Like when he sings 'even the losers get lucky sometimes.' Me being the quiet, quirky, not-so-popular guy in school, Tom's music really spoke to me. He is also a hero among artists. He stood up to the record companies and never quit on his dream."
Cronin says when he formed the band, he had a specific goal in mind. "I was searching for professional, easygoing musicians who shared the same passion for Petty's music as I do. I went through a lot of players, who, though talented, were just looking for a paying gig and didn't really have a passion for this. Tom's music is all about feel. You can't fake it.
"That's what separates The Petty Hearts from a cover band playing Tom Petty songs," he continues. "We rehearsed for about a year without doing a public show. We have the right gear, tone, feel and passion to play the music as it deserves to be played."
Petty's compositions, says Cronin, have a certain spirit running through them that his group attempts to recreate onstage. "His songs are about love, chasing your dreams, standing your ground and looking back on good times. We strive to play them just like the original recorded versions, but we also do a lot of the extended jams and live arrangements used by the Heartbreakers themselves.
"I move like him and talk like him, because I want people to feel like they are seeing the real Tom Petty up there," Cronin adds. "I treat it like a fun Halloween costume party, where I go for his 'Full Moon Fever,' late-'80s look."
Since Petty's untimely death Oct. 2, Cronin has dedicated every one of his band's shows to the songwriting legend, and he plans to continue doing so.
"He was always my hero," The Petty Hearts frontman says. "I own every album and DVD, and was lucky enough to see him [in concert] three times. When I got the news that he'd passed, it felt very personal, as if a family member died. I still get choked up when I listen to certain songs of his."
The fact that Petty is now gone has also impacted the scope of what The Petty Hearts hope to eventually achieve.
"We plan on adding so many new obscure songs to the shows, and even performing some albums in their entirety," Cronin says. "We understand that, unfortunately, we will never get the chance to hear these songs performed live again [by Petty], so we will do our best to perform as many different Petty songs as we can."
The singer and guitarist says he and his bandmates are aware that while many people enjoy watching tribute bands perform, many do not - and he feels their dismissal of this genre is often reflexive.
"I wish they would give [tribute bands] a chance and just have fun with it," he muses. "Some people think it's all a money grab. But they don't realize, it takes a lot of work and dedication to do a tribute band! We are all huge fans, and we respect the music."
He also says that while the band has received scores of compliments from other diehard Heartbreakers fans, every once in a while some harsh criticism will be thrown their way.
"Well, the tribute band business is a rough playground, with its share of jealousy and ugliness," he says with a chuckle. "I don't want to get into the drama, so I won't say who this was, but we once had a very successful show at a sold-out amphitheater in front of a crowd of about 2,000 people. It was a real highlight of a night, and the people were so into it that it was maybe the most fun I've ever had onstage."
"We got dozens of emails and Facebook messages from fans thanking us for a great show. Except for one guy who emailed our website saying he didn't think we were any good, that we were boring, blah, blah, blah. We looked him up, and it turns out, he's in another Petty tribute band!"
IF YOU GO
What: The Petty Hearts
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 10
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave.
Info: tybeeposttheater.org, pettyhearts.com