Petty redefines the Heartbreakers' brilliance on 'The Live Anthology'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
So many live collections get it wrong. They’re overblown, they’re self indulgent, they serve no purpose, or, most damning of all, they’re boring. They indulge in revisionist history, playing up rightfully ignored album tracks along with the hits, painting the band as a revolutionary force of its time. There are so many ways to get it all wrong.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have just released The Live Anthology, a four-disc (or five depending on which version you get) box set of live performances from 30 years of concerts. It is none of the awful things it could have been; it is amazing. So much so, that it’s nearly stunning. A careful examination shows that it’s really just (my) hastiness that could have imagined it might become a piece only for the hardcore fan to argue over. This is a full, complete set that will serve as a beacon in Petty’s already impressive catalog.
In the box set’s liner notes, Petty points out that instead of a live album full of hits (what he calls “the greatest hits, played faster”), he wanted a true representation of the Heartbreakers on stage, evolving and adapting through the years. Petty has always prided himself on his live performance, and anyone who has seen the man will attest to his enthusiasm and preparedness each night. It’s no surprise that a representative amount of care and time went into selecting the right performances and the final sequence of the set.
The final product is a live album with an incredible flow that doesn’t sacrifice the gems for the crowd pleasers. Longtime personal favorites — including “Nightwatchman,” “A Woman in Love,” “Southern Accents” and “Crawling Back to You,” among many, many others — are treated with the same respect as “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin’.” Other hits are given creative treatments, like the slowed down, acoustic-based versions of “Learning to Fly” and “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty has never had the reputation of playing hours-long sets, but the nearly four hours of music here play as the ultimate Heartbreakers gig. Perfectly paced, it moves seamlessly through each period of the Heartbreakers’ live show, illustrating that Petty and company were just as rock steady and exciting in 2007 as they were in 1981 — honestly, without looking at the credits, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which song is from which era.
That underscores the biggest surprise of this set, and why it’s so successful. Petty and the Heartbreakers have been a top draw for the better part of three decades, but how often are they thought of in terms of being an amazing live act? Certainly they have an excellent reputation, but I’ve never heard them included with the likes of Bruce Springsteen or the Grateful Dead. Perhaps they should be, and this collection makes a compelling argument for it. Honestly, I’ve caught him in the act on three separate occasions, and even I didn’t think of him first as the leader of a killer live band, and that’s a shame.
This collection will change that. In addition to showing how great they’ve been through the years, the covers sprinkled in between Petty’s numbers do a fantastic job of showing off the Heartbreakers’ chops. A loving, slowed-down version of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” appears on disc two, while the band really gets groovy on Booker T’s “Green Onions” on disc three. My favorite of these nuggets, however, is their version of the James Bond “Goldfinger” theme: daring and smooth, it gives the band a mysterious, almost evil edge, all while remaining playful. I was blown away the first time I heard it here; I can only imagine its impact when it was played that night (in 1997, for what it’s worth).
None of this should be as big as a surprise as it seems, of course. Mike Campbell, Petty’s partner in crime for more than 30 years, has been a secret weapon, rock’s best kept secret in the Heartbreakers’ lead guitar slot. Benmont Tench is his other former Mudcrutch compatriot who has lent his flawless playing to every track present, while the other past and future heartbreakers (Ron Blair and the late Howie Epstein on bass, Stan Lynch and Steve Ferrone on drums, jack of all trades Scott Thurston) don’t just hang with the Big Three, but drive and push the band like a finely tuned motor.
It’d be impossible to pick a single from this, but if I were put in charge of such a task, I know the call I’d make. Recorded on June 28, 1981, at the famous Los Angeles Forum, the Heartbreakers launch into their then-current single, “the Waiting.” It’s dynamic, it’s played with urgency and enthusiasm, and it’s tight as anything. Petty is extremely animated throughout one of his most memorable lyrics, but never campy. It might seem like a minor highlight among a mountain of memorable moments, but it just illustrates every great thing about this band, and The Live Anthology itself, so well. In the iTunes era, it’s been my most played of these 48 tracks.
Not that the rest received merely a cursory listen before being filed away. It’s a full, complete set, one that works as well at track two as it does 22 and 42. Rarely does a retrospective collection do so much to redefine its subject, but The Live Anthology does just that. When you mention Springsteen or the Dead or any other heavily bootlegged artist, you’ll have to include Petty in the conversation now. Don’t think so? Plunk down the extremely reasonable $20 for the box, turn off the lights, and let yourself go.
You won’t just see that I’m right. You’ll start searching for tour dates and tickets. You’ll call your friends in order to spray superlatives over the songs here. And, of course, you’ll hit repeat and listen to this again. And again, and again. For Petty’s task to document the greatness of his band, it will be a true “mission accomplished.”