I wish I could tell you how happy I am about finally having Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Live at the Fillmore, 1997 to listen to. In the interest of full disclosure I can’t tell you that I’m holding this live box set in my hands yet… The sketchy character known as “Santa” is supposed to bring it to me. I have a strong feeling that it’s wrapped and under my tree already. In that sense I do own it right now but I just can’t get to it for another few weeks… 12 days and counting. I will say, if you haven’t asked Santa for this music you best get on the horn to the North Pole asap and get it on your rock n roll list. In the absence of holding the physical album in my hands I’ve been streaming this amazing live document of a band at one of their true zeniths almost constantly. Other than Neil Young’s latest LP World Record, it’s literally all I’m listening to right now.
Part of the excitement I feel over this package is I can remember Petty, when he was still alive, talking about it. The two projects I’d hear him mention in interviews before we alas, lost him, were a live album culled from their 1997 20-concert residency at San Francisco’s venerable Fillmore theater and the expanded version of Wildflowers that more accurately portrayed his original vision of that record as a double-LP. I have to say that Adria Petty (Tom’s daughter) and whoever else she’s working with has done a nice job on the posthumous releases they’ve done to celebrate the life of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’ll be the first to admit there was some skull-fuckery on her part around Wildflowers And All The Rest. I bought the deluxe 4-CD edition and it didn’t have the B-side everybody wanted, “Girl On LSD.” Well, there was a live version. That song, amongst a few others were held out for inclusion on a bonus “fifth disc” that a bunch of people spent a lot more money than I did purchasing. Then, chastised, they released that fifth disc separately as Finding Wildflowers. The folks that bought the 5-disc All The Rest were pissed and well, so was I just because Petty was never greedy like that. He once fought the record company to keep his albums priced at $8.98 vs the $9.98 the record company wanted to charge. That part aside, the Wildflowers And All The Rest was ultimately a very satisfying box set.
The other box set Adria (with help from some Heartbreakers, notably guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench) put out to honor Tom – and to release a treasure trove of released and unreleased stuff – was 2018’s American Treasure. Man, do I love that box set. It was truly a different path through Petty’s amazing career than provided by his officially released albums. If you haven’t checked that out yet again, you might wanna call the North Pole. American Treasure finally saw the release of what I consider the definitive version of “Breakdown” recorded live at the Capitol Studios.
Now we finally have the live LP that Petty never got around to releasing, Live At the Fillmore, 1997. While he talked about it occasionally, I’m not sure Petty was a big live LP enthusiast the way we are here at B&V. I remember him describing live albums as being greatest hits played way too fast. As longtime readers know, I love live albums. I actually bought and still own Petty & the Heartbreakers first live album, the double vinyl Pack Up The Plantation. It was from the tour to support Southern Accents and coincidentally was the first tour I actually saw Petty live. I don’t know what took me so long. The whole Plantation theme and the big Confederate Flag as a stage backdrop were probably ill-conceived and Petty said later in his career he had some regrets about that. I really liked that live album but it was overshadowed for most folks as Springsteen released his mammoth live LP Live ’75 to ’85 at around the same time. And while I liked Plantation even I’ll admit I don’t think it’s representative of the true live spirit of the Heartbreakers. They had a horn section and back up singers on that tour and thus on the album. Petty eventually put out an epic live album of his own ala Springsteen with the 5-CD Live Anthology. It remains a favorite here at B&V.
As much as I loved Live Anthology, now that I’ve heard Live At the Fillmore, 1997 I might have to go back and change my post on our favorite live LPs, BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums to include this one. When the Heartbreakers decided to hole up for a 20 night residency at the Fillmore in San Francisco in early 1997 things were changing a bit for the band. Longtime drummer Stan Lynch had split – last performing on the two bonus tracks on the Greatest Hits album – to be replaced with Steve Ferrone. They’d added multi instrumentalist Scott Thurston somewhere along the line to round out their sound. Luckily bassist Howie Epstein (who also provides delightful harmony vocals) was still with us and plays/sings on this live album. Of course guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench are here in all their glory. The band had just put out their soundtrack Songs and Music From “She’s The One” in August of 1996 and were three years away from recording Echo. These performances were to be the Hearbreakers only live shows in 1997 but man, what shows it sounds like they were.
Instead of the usual set list of songs a band plays on a big tour the Heartbreakers mixed it up quite a bit on this residency. I saw the Stones in ’81 in Houston and and then Kansas City and they played the exact same songs, in the same order and looked utterly bored doing so. I mean, that has to get old right? This is like listening to the best house band ever in a small bar. If I lived out in California I’d have tried to go to as many of these shows as I could have. Instead of playing the usual big hits and time worn crowd favorites Petty and the Heartbreakers turn to playing the music that inspired and influenced them in the first place. You can tell what an absolute kick they get out of that. It’s like a resurgence of energy. The sheer joy pouring out of the speakers on these performances makes this essential Petty listening. It’s like capturing a moment in time forever in amber. Who among us wouldn’t want that? Some people might be put off at the lack of hits here but give me the Heartbreakers honoring Chuck Berry by way of the Stones by blasting through “Around And Around” all day long.
Early on, after blasting through “Jammin’ Me” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” they crank up Little Richard’s “Lucille” and I am here for it! They follow that up with J.J. Cale’s “Call Me The Breeze” and that point on the album they’d played more covers than originals. The band sounds loose and happy but they are tight as Hell here. “I Won’t Back Down” gets an airing but it’s very stripped down. Petty plays “a song (he) learned at camp” which turns out to be “You Are My Sunshine” which leads into a soulful Bill Withers’ cover “Ain’t No Sunshine.” I feel like I’m standing in a bar, beer in hand, jaw agape thinking “I’m glad I came out tonight.” The band takes us in so many wonderful directions here. They even dip into the early, early Mudcrutch catalog for “On The Street.” They dig pretty deep on the choice of covers with “Hip Hugger,” an instrumental by Booker T. and the MGs. Anything goes! A fan actually calls out a request for “Hearbreakers’ Beach Party” – a Playback obscurity – and the band obliges him and plays the song which Petty admits the band had heretofore never played live.
“Even The Losers” and “American Girl” appear but merely as acoustic renditions which was fine with me! They do the James Bond theme “Goldfinger” which no one wants to acknowledge was a song done by Mike Campbell’s side project (the Blue Stingrays). Eventually they welcome original Byrd Roger McGuinn onto the stage for a mini-Byrds set of tunes. The Heartbreakers were always compared to the Byrds so why not invite Roger to the party. Eventually John Lee Hooker comes out for some smokin’ blues. It’s fantastic and I’m so thrilled they included the guest stars on the record.
You name an influence on the Heartbreakers and there’s probably a song here by them: the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Byrds, Blues music, the Grateful Dead, Them (Van Morrison), the Everly Brothers…the list goes on. This is like Tom and the guys are still just a small band playing the biggest ballroom in Gainesville like back in the early days. There is just so much joy and great music on this live album. There’s so much that is great on this thing I can’t even begin to list it all. I can’t recommend this thing highly enough. It’s been a real treat to let myself get absorbed in these performances. It’s clear to me that Petty and the Heartbreaker’s were at an absolute peak at this stage of the game. Everyone should hear this album. It should be taught to all new bands… learn this great set of rock songs and you’ll always have a job.
Petty says at one point on the album he considered the shows they were doing at the Fillmore as one of the true highlights of his career and goes on to say “It’s going to be hard to get us off the stage…” Thank Heaven it was!