By James Calemine
These four CDs–48 songs–comprise Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ hand-chosen most emotive live recordings in their 30 year career. The Anthology’s track list does not adhere to chronological sequence. That was one of Petty’s ‘guiding principles’. This bit of Petty’s liner notes explain The Anthology’s intention:
“The process of putting this together, if intensive, was pretty straightforward: listen to it all, pick the best stuff, and put it in some kind of order. Straightforward, but hardly simple. We established a few guiding principles to help us through. First, we didn’t want this to be a greatest hits live collection (what I call The Greatest Hits Played Faster). Second, we threw out the idea of ordering the songs chronologically—we were far more intent on getting a sequence that felt right, one musical and emotional moment leading to the next. We sequenced the songs as we would any other recording, thinking about mood first.
“Third, we knew we didn’t want to mess with any of the recordings. No overdubs, no fixes. Any mistakes would have to be part of the thing. Fourth, this collection had to be about a band at work, a band capable of thinking on its feet. Sometimes the covers we played revealed more about who the Heartbreakers are and how we think musically than the songs that became hits. The covers revealed something special, and we always took them as seriously as anything else we played. So we didn’t shy away from including a bunch of them here, even if some were only performed only once or twice and then disappeared from the set list…”
Petty goes on to write he believes this Anthology captures the spirit of his band’s live performances, and he has a pretty good case. He wrote he always felt there was a special connection between memory and music. His songs linger in many memories. You can read the tracklist for song sequence because for this review, it’s unavoidable to write it without a personal slant.
Disc One opens with a song that conjures fond memories—“Nightwatchman”—from the Hard Promises album. Next on Anthology, “Even The Losers”, “Here Comes My Girl”, “A Thing About You”, “Breakdown” and “Straight Into Darkness” arise out of the graveyard of my mind and I realize these songs were part of my earliest musical influences. John Keen’s “Something In the Air”, Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love To You” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” remind the listener the Heartbreakers never strayed far from backwater blues.
Disc Two’s “Wildflowers” emerges as a gem. The Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter “Friend of the Devil” (recorded from The Heartbreakers’ landmark 1997 Fillmore performances) indicated the band’s patchwork quilt tastes with Petty’s Dylan-vocal inflection rise to the top. “A Woman In Love” never sounded so good—a timeless wonder. “Angel Dream (No. 2)”, serves as testimony that Petty’s written so many remarkable songs that even great ones like this sometimes go unnoticed, until now.
“Learning To Fly” recorded at 2006 Bonnaroo, might as well serve as fanfare for the common man—a mystical anthem that resonates with rich and poor. Tom has always encouraged the crowd to sing with him as this Anthology illustrates. There is something primal and endearing when 70,000 people singing a chorus and verse at the same time, say in Wembley Stadium, or intimate hometown environs of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida.
The gritty rock and roll of “Mary’s Last Dance” reiterates Petty’s ability to keep songs in the public consciousness—the hometown girl? C’mon, we all know that story and Tom sings it so well. At this point, it’s essential to point out the grace, fluidity and genius of guitarist Jacksonville native Mike Campbell. His guitar playing serves as the backbone to The Heartbreakers’—and Petty’s—sound.
Disc Three begins with the Dylan/Petty penned “Jammin’ Me”. The provenance of this song and the Dylan/Petty tour of several years before become a turning point in this writer’s music perspective. Petty brought the past up to the moment. “The Wild One, Forever” marks a classic cut from Petty’s self-titled album recorded over three decades ago. The rendition of Booker T. & The MGs’ “Green Onions” sounds even better than the original studio version because of these live nuances. Mike Campbell playing Steve Cropper and Benmont Tench playing Booker T sounds beyond formidable…
Disc Four’s highlights include the Peter Green classic “Oh Well”, “Southern Accents”, “Have Love Will Travel”, “The Waiting” and “Alright For Now”. Unfortunately, there are no tracks from Petty’s dark Echo album, but there’s little room for complaint with this Anthology. Petty’s music reached many folks in his thirty-year career and I’m sure most of them are still alive, which means he still retains the ability to write songs that continue to represent another era in someone’s life. What else could an artist ask for?
These words Petty wrote in this Anthology Introduction says it all: “But if I always knew that there’s a special connection between music and memory, I guess I wasn’t fully prepared for how much of the past that came back to me as I listened to the songs included here. When we started to play tracks for other people, I was really happy to see that the music kicked off their memories, just as it did mine. It reminded me that there are a lot of fellow travelers out there, scores of people who have been a part of this adventure over the years. I hope the good feelings I got out of hearing these songs again are theirs, too. I like the company. Always have.”