Tom Petty / The Heartbreakers - Live at the Fillmore (1997) Music Album Reviews

Tom Petty / The Heartbreakers - Live at the Fillmore (1997) Music Album Reviews
Compiled from a marathon run of shows at the Fillmore Auditorium, this live set is a joyful, relaxed, and abundant journey through Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ personal rock’n’roll history.

By 1997, Tom Petty had achieved his wildest rock’n’roll dreams and then some. He’d released nine albums with the Heartbreakers as well as two million-selling solo albums; morphed into an improbable MTV favorite with a succession of delightfully idiosyncratic videos; toured internationally with Bob Dylan as Dylan’s opening act and his backing band, simultaneously; and he’d played the role of Charlie T. Wilbury Jr., the kid brother in the classic rock supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. Even with all of that, and perhaps because of it, he was restless. After decades of playing arenas—venues where “you do feel compelled to play them the most popular songs,” as he told critic Joel Selvin—the music business hamster wheel of album-videos-tour-album felt uninspiring. This is the point at which, historically, bands either self-destruct or break up. Instead, Petty decided they’d play 10 shows at San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium, which expanded to 20 shows by the time the tickets were done selling out. The Heartbreakers hadn’t played live in more than a year when they got together for a couple of rehearsals beforehand, coming out with a list of almost 60 prospective entries for the setlist, everything from bluegrass to covers to, yes, some of their hits. (“We do like those as well,” Petty told Selvin.)

The 20 nights were a joyful, relaxed, and abundant journey through the musicians’ personal rock’n’roll history, mixing the beloved covers they’d started out playing alongside thoughtful revisitations of the songs that got them here. It was a Hall of Fame-level set by a band who still had a lot more history ahead of them. Petty and the band played the music they loved in front of a Fillmore audience that combined devoted fans (many who returned night after night) alongside everyday Bay Area rock’n’roll devotees. There were special guests, inside jokes (Petty referred to the band one night as “the Fillmore House Band” and the promoters quickly made up hats), live broadcasts, and given the history of the building, probably a few ghosts. The last six shows of the stand were recorded professionally, and it’s from there that Live at the Fillmore (1997) was assembled.

As is de rigueur these days, there are multiple configurations available, but it’s the 4xCD deluxe that’s most of interest, as it provides the essentials, the rarities, and the special guests—57 tracks in total, 35 of which are covers or guest performances. But those numbers don’t adequately convey the strength of the release. Live at the Fillmore sounds and feels vibrant and inviting, and it is curated with obvious attention and care. The first two discs present a version of the core set that evolved after the first few nights, the third disc showcases special guests the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and John Lee Hooker, and the last disc presents the back half of the show, the energetic and emotional coast to the end. It feels like it all could have been one single performance, and it almost could have been, given the extent of the band’s output across those 20 nights. They played close to 30 songs almost every show, about a third of which were classic rock—including Little Richard (“Lucille” or “Rip It Up”), Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Call Me the Breeze”), the Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”), and even “You Are My Sunshine,” which Petty mentions he’d learned at summer camp.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard “Free Fallin’,” the epic opener of 1989’s solo release Full Moon Fever: Here you get to hear Petty rediscover his own composition, to hear the Heartbreakers act like the finely tuned machine that they were (even with new drummer Steve Ferrone behind the kit), and to appreciate a huge song in the intimacy of a small club. Elsewhere in the set, someone in the audience yells a request and Petty responds, with some measure of disbelief: “Did somebody just say ‘Heartbreakers Beach Party’? What key is that in, Benmont?” and the Heartbreakers proceed to perform a song they’d never played live. It doesn’t matter that the song is a silly in-joke, a non-LP B-side written to accompany a 1983 MTV special that hasn’t been seen since; the band plays it with attention and care. It’s a hilarious, fantasy moment that could never happen in an arena, but it’s exactly the serendipity you hope for in this kind of setting.

McGuinn had long been one of Petty’s personal heroes, and although this isn’t the first time they’d performed together, it’s a great document of their affinity and connection. Hooker (whose Boom Boom Room was across the street from the Fillmore) got invited over to delight both backing band and audience, connecting the dots from the Mississippi Delta to rock’n’roll, and specifically the marriage of the blues and the British Invasion that Petty and the Heartbreakers embodied. Like McGuinn’s set, this isn’t a vanity appearance; everyone on stage stepped up, and that motor was purring by the time they get to “Boogie Chillen,” as guitarist Mike Campbell, Petty on harmonica, and then (as Hooker introduces him) “the 88 man,” keyboardist Benmont Tench, get a chance to stake their claim.

One of the best moments on the release isn’t a special guest or a rare cover, but in the chorus of “You Wreck Me,” from 1994’s Wildflowers. It’s in the lead-in to the first chorus, not lyrics, just a “whoa-oh-oh/yeahhh,” but the crowd sings along perfectly, on time and in tune. It’s genuinely affectionate, warm, and almost tangible. “You Wreck Me,” an absolute gem of a song, was still a new addition to the Heartbreakers’ set. This moment of call-and-response, energy reflection from the band to the crowd and back again, is emblematic of the intimate charm this release captures. “I just want to play,” Petty said before the shows. “We want to get back to what we understand.” What Petty wanted was connection, that intangible ingredient that you can’t fake, predict, or force. It vibrates out of every track of this set.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Tom Petty / The Heartbreakers - Live at the Fillmore (1997) Music Album Reviews Tom Petty / The Heartbreakers - Live at the Fillmore (1997) Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on December 13, 2022 Rating: 5


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