LP Review: Tom Petty, ‘An American Treasure’ – A Different Path Through a Brilliant Career

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“And may my love travel with you, everywhere” – Tom Petty, “Have Love, Will Travel”

As chance would have it, the day my copy of Tom Petty’s new box set, An American Treasure arrived at the house, September 28th (I’d pre-ordered it), I had to jump in the car to head out to points west to take my wife and daughter to see my KC Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. It was tough duty to hold that box set in my hands and leave it behind… Family comes first. After a great, long weekend in Denver, the Rock Chick slid behind the wheel as we headed back home… I realized it was October 2nd, the one year anniversary of Tom’s sad passing… I commemorated the date in a way I’d hope would make Tom smile, out on the open road, cruising down the highway at top speed, blasting the Tom Petty playlist the Rock Chick put together a year ago to honor the man. That quickly led me to my playlist of my favorite deep tracks, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks, now posted on Spotify.

While my driving, binge-listening to Petty was a nice memorial, I found a much more fitting tribute when I returned home to An American Treasure. This is a superb box set. It was lovingly curated by Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and Petty’s wife Dana and daughter Adria. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Ryan Ulyate, whose remastering of these tracks is nothing short of genius. Petty and the Heartbreakers released their first box set, Playback in 1995 and one might wonder, “another box?” Playback was a six disc box. The first three discs were a wonderful career retrospective of greatest hits and “best of” kind of tracks. The last three discs were b-sides and unreleased tracks. It’s an exceptional listen.

An American Treasure is simply put, a different journey through this artist’s or this band’s career. It reminds me somewhat of Bruce Springsteen’s epic box set Tracks, that Bruce described as a different road than what his journey had taken him on. If you’re more of a greatest hits type fan, this box will take you into some deeper cuts from Petty and flesh out the man’s artistry. Campbell, Tench and company actively tried to stay away from the greatest hits or anything that was previously released on Playback here. You won’t find “Free Fallin'” on this box. The familiar tracks are either live or released in an alternative version, which (while cliche) is a window into Petty and the Heartbreakers’ creative process. The goal on An American Treasure was to bring you inside the studio with the Heartbreakers to get a glimpse of their genius. I was surprised what a cohesive listen this was from start to finish. To me, what this box highlights, is Petty’s amazing and oft overlooked ability as a lyricist. He remained through out his career an “Everyman” who could tell stories and paint pictures with just a modicum of words and whole lot of emotion. What he’s able to convey with such an economy of words is amazing and perhaps something I should learn from. When you do listen to this set all the way through (at four hours it’s a commitment) you start to realize the cinematic scope of Petty’s writing. His songs, for me, evoke images in my head. I can see what’s happening in the song.

If you will indulge me in a metaphoric detour, I would compare An American Treasure to my old days, driving up to college. Between my hometown and my college, there is a 4-lane, interstate highway, part of which is a toll road. It was the fastest way to get there… hit the on ramp, pay the toll, speed to college. But there were many of us, mostly to avoid the 75-cent toll, who would skip the interstate and take back roads… It was slower on the two-lane black top roads but the ride was much more interesting. You had to slow down at every little village and hamlet on the way, but you saw a lot more of the country side. There was even a bar or two one might stop at, if you were so inclined. If I was at one of those places now, I’d be highly motivated to put this box set on the stereo… “a round for everyone, I’m here for a little while” to quote Petty himself… An American Treasure is that slower journey down that road less traveled.

There really is something on this box for everyone, no matter what kind of fan of Petty’s you are. If you’re only into the greatest hits, there are deep/album cuts here that will deepen your understanding of Petty’s work. From “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from the first album to “Crawling Back To You” from Wildflowers, there are a bunch of tracks that you won’t find on a Greatest Hits compilation but are of such a high quality one must wonder, “why wasn’t this a single?”

Stepping in a little deeper, there are a lot of unreleased live versions of songs here. While Petty released a big multi-disc live set, Live Anthology the live versions of tracks you find here are revelatory. You get to hear the band develop as a live act. Especially of interest to me was a live version of “Breakdown” that was recorded live for a special radio broadcast at Capitol Studios, in front of a very small audience. That version of “Breakdown” was the only version of that song played on my local radio station, KY/102. This is the first official release of the song and it’s about time! When I bought their first eponymously titled album, I was disappointed when I realized the version of “Breakdown” was a studio version. It’s nice to finally hear this released in a clean copy. There are great live versions of tracks, including ones by Mudcrutch that are worth exploring. The Heartbreakers, Campbell on guitar, Tench on keyboards and either Ron Blair or Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone on drums, and utility infielder Scott Thurston on, well, almost everything, were one of the tightest bands around.

For those of you who own all the albums, many of the familiar tracks are here in “alternate” versions. “Here Comes My Girl” is the same track as originally released, but rather than fade out you get to hear the band jam a bit at the end. “Fooled Again” from the second album was sped up when it was originally released, and I like this slightly slower version. There’s something new to discover in these different versions. Special kudos to Ulyate for his work on bringing out features and sounds on these alternate versions that you might have missed on the first go around. Many of the alternate versions were earlier versions or have different arrangements or lyrics. There are enough differences in the alternate versions that kept me highly interested. The redone version of “Rebels” with a different drum track (without that 80s echo) is perhaps definitive here.

Finally, for me, the intense collector, there are a host of previously unreleased tracks. It’s an American treasure trove. I’d heard a few of these before, in different versions, “Surrender” (here a first take) and “Keeping Me Alive” (a Long After Dark leftover). There’s a great, funky little, Leon Russell-like track from Mudcrutch, “Lost In Your Eyes,” that makes me wonder, why’d they hide this amazing song so long. Of course, the first single, “Keep A Little Soul,” also an out take from Long After Dark, remains one of my favorites Tom Petty: New Single From The Upcoming Box-set, “Keep A Little Soul”. “Walkin’ From the Fire” is an excellent track from the Southern Accents that should have been on the album. There are just so many great tracks – “Gainesville,” Chuck Berry-style rave up “Lonesome Dave” or the jam “Two Men Talking” – everyone needs to hear these songs.

An American Treasure, which is a term we all use to describe Tom Petty, is an aptly named, wonderful tribute to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ career. This is a must hear for all fans. Lock the door, turn off your phone and spend the evening with an old friend, Tom Petty, and may his “love travel with you, always.”

Cheers!

 

Tom Petty: New Single From The Upcoming Box-set, “Keep A Little Soul”

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I think I speak for the majority of rock and roll fans when I say, I’m just not over the loss of Tom Petty. I don’t know if I ever will get over it (RIP Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017, A Devastating Loss: The Composer of the Soundtrack to My Life Is Gone). His music and concerts were so ingrained as a part of my life it just feels weird that he’s gone. One thing I’ve been hoping for, nay, praying for, is that his estate and the Heartbreakers would release some of the material that Petty had compiled in his vaults. For a couple of years prior to his passing, Petty himself spoke about revisiting the Wildflowers album and doing a reissue. His original concept had been for that to be a double-album. The re-release would have restored Wildflowers to his original concept and he and the Heartbreakers were going to tour and play the whole thing. Oh, how I wish we all could have seen that.

As far as I know, the Wildflowers project is still in the works. I started seeing on Petty’s Instagram and Twitter accounts, much like McCartney did lately, pictures of boxes of tape reels and other hints that something was coming. I thought fleetingly that it would be the Wildflowers project finally seeing the light of day. Well, it’s not the Wildflowers project I’d been anticipating, instead my prayers have been answered and the Petty camp has announced they’re releasing a box-set (4-CDs or 6 vinyl LPs) entitled perfectly, An American Treasure. The project was curated by longtime band members Mike Campbell (guitar and recent addition to Fleetwood Mac), Ben Tench (keyboards extraordinaire) and members of Petty’s family. The Rock Chick would probably like me to wait until Christmas to snap this box up… I have bad news for her. The release date is set for September 27th.

I have seen, in several publications, the album’s song list. There is a lot to get excited about. First and foremost, he’s releasing the three song set he recorded at Capitol Studios that contains, for those of us who grew up listening to KY102, the definitive version of “Breakdown.” It’s the only version we knew…(Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks). There are B-sides and additional live tracks, not only from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers but from Mudcrutch too. Oddly, they do throw in a few “deep cuts” or as they call them, “album cuts” from some of the lesser known albums of Petty’s career like the soundtrack for She’s the One and The Last DJ. Overall, I’d have to say this is a fitting box-set to celebrate Tom Petty’s long career. Each CD is organized around a certain decade of Petty’s career. My only complaint is that I don’t see “Sweet William,” a rollicking, bluesy B-side from the Echo sessions. But, I’m sure we’ll see that in due time. Also absent is much of the Wildflowers stuff, like “Girl On LSD” which I’m sure means the expanded edition will come out sometime in the future.

To commemorate the announcement of the new box, a single has been released, “Keep A Little Soul,” a track recorded in 1982 for the Long After Dark sessions. I have to say, and this may be a little sentimental on my part, I love this song. Long After Dark is a bit of an overlooked album in the Petty canon. It came after the two triumphs, Damn The Torpedoes and Hard Promises. Petty and the Heartbreakers had been on the road almost non stop and released an album almost every year and a half. Long After Dark had a bit of darker undertone, despite some of the more modern touches like the synth on “You Got Lucky.” They sound, well, a little tired on this record. I think they were burning out a little bit. I still love the album but it just didn’t do as well as the two previous records.

To put it in perspective, Long After Dark came out a mere three years after Torpedoes, a pace of an album a year, plus a tour. It had been six years since the first album came out. Five albums and constant touring can take it’s toll on a band. It was no surprise that it took three years for the follow up, 1985’s Southern Accents to come out. Of course, in the interim, Petty had smashed his hand when punching a wall in a fit of anger… They couldn’t get a guitar part to sound right. I think we’ve all been there. Looking back at Long After Dark, the most notable thing about it might that it was Howie Epstein’s first album with the band on bass and exquisite harmony/backing vocals.

When I first heard “Keep A Little Soul,” I couldn’t help but think, how did this not make the album? How in the world did Petty keep this in the can for all these years. “Keeping Me Alive” was another outtake from the Long After Dark sessions but it finally came out on the box-set Playback in 1995. But upon further listens you start to realize, this song really didn’t fit the darker tone of the album… This track isn’t a song that would have fit in with “Change of Heart,” or “Straight Into Darkness.”

This song is a great midtempo, upbeat message track. It’s one of those, everything is going to be alright lyrics. “It doesn’t matter, when you keep a little soul, nothing really matters any more.” The sound is classic Petty and the Heartbreakers. If anybody shines here it’s Benmont Tench’s keyboards. Howie Epstein can be heard singing the background vocal. Petty is engaged and sounds happy. This song doesn’t have that world-weary feel that many of the other tracks on the album have. The track starts with only Petty’s voice counting it in and ends, in a bittersweet moment, with Petty saying, “That was fun…”

I think “Keep A Little Soul” is an essential track in what will turn out to be an essential addition to the Petty catalog. I have to mention, if you haven’t already, go out to YouTube and check out the video for it. It has never before seen footage of the band on the road and on stage. Although I was an early Petty fan, I didn’t get to see them live until the Southern Accents tour. It was fun to see Petty, with the different hair cuts – with that Long After Dark era mullet (full confession, I, your intrepid blogger rocked a mullet in the 80s) – on stage and going crazy, dancing, running around. God, I could kick myself for not going to see him earlier… I’ll be the first to admit, I smiled through the entire video and when it was over there was a tear in my eye… It was a bit like looking at an old photo of a friend or a fallen comrade and being taken back to the moment of the photo… and just for a second, feeling that same youthful joy…

Keep a little soul out there folks! We all need it. Cheers!