Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Live at the Fillmore: Review

“We have so much fun here at the Fillmore, it’s ridiculous,” Tom Petty tells the audience at one point Live at the Fillmore (1997). You think? In one of its configurations – standard (two-CD, three-LP) or deluxe (4 CDs, six LPs) – Live at the Fillmore (1997) is more than just a good time. Petty’s 20-show stand with the Heartbreakers at the legendary San Francisco venue in January and February of that year was epic, a landmark not just for rock ‘n’ roll acts, but for all music.

It was a rare situation where a group was able to establish a residency and turn its shows into experimental laboratories and playgrounds, exploring its roots and influences as well as stretching in fresh directions, raising the band’s stature in the process. As Petty notes before “Okay For Now” sends us home, “We really feel like this is the highlight of our entire time together as a group.” A good time was had by all, but with a lot of damn good music made throughout.

Petty and the Heartbreakers are not new to the multidisc live album package. But unlike 2009’s career-spanning The Living Anthology, Fillmore, drawn from six professionally recorded shows, captures a moment in time – and a time when the Heartbreakers (then in Mk. 4 mode with bassist Howie Epstein, drummer Steve Ferrone and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston) were in prime form. The group was somewhat refreshed after a short hiatus and, as this album shows, ready to make some big musical statements.

These are scattered throughout the Fillmore sets. You can start the music anywhere on the 33 or 72 song packs and find a gem. The shows were full of hits and covers; Chuck Berryis “Around and Around”, with its declaration that “the joint rocked,” is a perfect opener on the deluxe edition, as Petty and company then blast through “Jammin’ Me,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and renditions of Little Richard‘s “Lucille” and JJ Cale‘Call Me the Breeze’ before pausing to catch his breath and leaving the listener gasping for more.

And that’s how it goes all the way through. The highlights are plentiful. It’s especially fun to hear the Heartbreakers mix it up with their guests, including John Lee Hooker on a long, pass-the-ball treatment of “Boogie Chillen” and getting “Eight Miles High” in Byrd’sRoger McGuinn. The covers list, meanwhile, makes the sextet sound like the most potent bar band in the world, especially on a late-album romp through Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny,” The Rolling Stones“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “It’s All Over Now” and the three-chord staples “Louie Louie” and “Gloria.” Elsewhere, Petty pairs “You Are My Sunshine” (“a song I learned at summer camp”) with Bill Withers‘ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and takes a vocal break for instrumentals like the Ventures’ “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (for guitarist Mike Campbell‘s birthday show) and Booker T. & the MG’s “Green Onions”, introduced as keyboardist Benmont Tenchs favorite song to play. Before “Diddy Wah Diddy,” Petty declares his writer, Bo Diddley, “a man who should be elected president of America.”

How deep the Heartbreakers dig here is evidenced by “On the Street,” a tune Petty says Tench wrote for the band in 1974 back in the band’s native Florida. The group’s playful side also gets ample airing, including a first-ever “Heartbreakers Beach Party” appearance and the tight, Campbell-penned “The Date I Had With a Homecoming Queen.” There are also explosive deliveries of “Even the Losers,” “American Girl,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Listen to Her Heart” and “Free Fallin'” to expansive, extended versions of “It’s Good to Be King ” ,” “Honey Bee” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

The practice of listening to Fillmore, especially in its recommended deluxe form, is satisfying and filling – and a little sad as a reminder that the band is no more. But in the end, we’re thankful that Petty and the Heartbreakers were here at all as we finish a listen and rush to start the entire session over.

Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers: Where Are They Now?

The surviving members continue to break new ground.

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