Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers ‘Live at the Fillmore 1997’ Box Is a Glorious Four-Hour-Long Stocking Stuffer: Album Review

It’s blindingly obvious to say that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were one of the all-time great American bands, but that statement is beyond question not only because of Petty’s deeply human and direct, deceptively simple songs, but because of the band itself.

The Heartbreakers are up there with the Band, Booker T. & the MGs, the E Street Band and the Roots in terms of virtuosity and versatility — a band that earned its chops the old-school way, playing hundreds or even thousands of hours-long bar gigs (or, in the Roots’ case, thousands of late-night TV shows), learning what worked by trial and error, with a vast repertoire and the ability to stretch out and transform songs because, hey, playing music is fun. As a result, they could back Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Stevie Nicks, John Lee Hooker or Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn, and were flexible enough musically and socially to welcome a 25-year-old Dave Grohl, in his first post-Nirvana appearance and still reeling from tragedy, as their drummer for a 1994 “Saturday Night Live” appearance.

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A large part of that greatness stems from the seemingly psychic musical connection Petty enjoyed with keyboardist Benmont Tench and lead guitarist Mike Campbell, with whom he began playing in 1964 (when Tench was 11) and 1971, respectively. The three, along with various other Heartbreakers, played literally thousands of gigs together until Petty’s untimely death in 2017, hundreds of which were professionally recorded. But after multiple live albums (including the 1985 “Pack Up the Plantation” set and the career-spanning, five-hour-long “Live Anthology” box), DVDs, videotapes, bootlegs, bonus tracks, radio broadcasts and — as Petty calls it on this album — “something called the Internet, whatever that is,” from across 40-plus years, what could be left worth releasing, let alone as a new 4-CD/6-LP live set culled from the last six nights of the band’s 20-show 1997 residency at the Fillmore in San Francisco?

A lot, as it turns out. Burned out by same-set-every-night arena tours, the band made the most of that residency, playing a different setlist every show, rearranging their hits, working up loads of covers — 35 of the 58 songs on the deluxe edition are covers — and bringing in guests like McGuinn, Hooker and even Carl Perkins (although unfortunately the latter is not on this set), reverting to their bar-band roots and clearly having a blast. (The full tracklist appears below; the album is also available in a more-sane, 2-CD/3-LP set.)

Obviously, this isn’t a standard Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert — see above for plenty of those — but for people who love the sound of a band stretching, showing off, challenging each other and having fun, it’s hard to think of many better albums. The covers range from Little Richard and Chuck Berry to the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones, from J.J. Cale and the Everly Brothers to “Goldfinger,” “Green Onions” and “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” There’s also plenty of their own hits — “Listen to Her Heart,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Free Fallin’,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “I Won’t Back Down” — sometimes in dramatically different versions. They bring out McGuinn and Hooker and play not one but four songs with each. And a priceless moment occurs when someone in the audience shouts out an obscure, tossed-off B-side the band released in 1983: Petty says incredulously, “Wait a minute, did somebody say ‘Heartbreakers Beach Party’? Benmont, what key is that in?” and they play it, probably for the first time since it was recorded. The band is having such a good time that at one point on the album, Petty says to the audience, “We all feel this might be the highpoint of our time together as a group.”

On that note, the album captures what is arguably the best lineup of the band since its original one, with stellar backing vocals from bassist Howie Epstein and auxiliary Heartbreaker Scott Thurston, and although then-new drummer Steve Ferrone was a British session ace whose playing was arguably too slick for a Southern-fried combo like the Heartbreakers, here he can’t help but keep it loose: As Petty says in a contemporaneous interview quoted in the liner notes, “With this band, if they’re too familiar, you have to throw them curves. Steve Ferrone still thinks it’s audacious that I would play songs he doesn’t know.” (Campbell and engineer/archivist Ryan Ulyate have brought a similar loose-but-tight curation to this set.)

And Petty himself is not only the ringmaster but in rare musical form: He’s always gotten his due as a songwriter but not as a singer — his voice was remarkably versatile for its high, reedy tone — or as a frontman, with an equally wide range between intensity and warmth, and the ability, honed across those decades of gigs, to connect intimately with small audiences like the ones here, or hold tens of thousands of people in the palm of his hand.

On the closing night, the band roared through 40 songs in over three hours, and at times the last disc feels a bit redundant for those of us who weren’t in the room (does anyone really need to hear covers of “Louie Louie,” “Satisfaction” or “Gloria”?). But to be fair, on that night a quarter-century ago, they probably sounded glorious — and all these years later, you’re there at the Fillmore with them.

1. Pre-show (spoken interlude)

2. Around And Around

3. Jammin’ Me

4. Runnin’ Down A Dream

5. Good Evening (spoken interlude)

6. Lucille

7. Call Me The Breeze

8. Cabin Down Below

9. The Internet, Whatever That Is (spoken interlude)

10. Time is On My Side

11. Listen To Her Heart

12. Waitin’ In School

13. Let’s Hear It For Mike (spoken interlude)

14. Slaughter On Tenth Avenue

15. Homecoming Queen Intro (spoken interlude)

16. The Date I Had with That Ugly Old Homecoming Queen

17. I Won’t Back Down

18. You Are My Sunshine

19. Ain’t No Sunshine

20. It’s Good To Be King

CD 2

1. Rip It Up

2. You Don’t Know How It Feels

3. I’d Like To Love You Baby

4. Diddy Wah Diddy

5. We Got A Long Way To Go (spoken interlude)

6. Guitar Boogie Shuffle

7. I Want You Back Again

8. On The Street Intro (spoken interlude)

9. On The Street

10. California

11. Let’s Hear It For Scott and Howie (spoken interlude)

12. Little Maggie

13. Walls

14. Hip Hugger

15. Friend Of The Devil

16. Did Someone Say Heartbreakers Beach Party? (spoken interlude)

17. Heartbreakers Beach Party

18. Angel Dream

19. The Wild One, Forever

20. Even The Losers

21. American Girl

22. You Really Got Me

23. Goldfinger

CD 3

1. Mr. Roger McGuinn (spoken interlude)

2. It Won’t Be Wrong

3. You Ain’t Going Nowhere

4. Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man

5. Eight Miles High

6. Crazy Mama

7. Everyone Loves Benmont (spoken interlude)

8. Green Onions

9. High Heel Sneakers

10. John Lee Hooker, Ladies And Gentlemen (spoken interlude)

11. Find My Baby (Locked Up In Love Again)

12. Serves You Right To Suffer

13. Boogie Chillen

14. I Got A Woman

CD 4

1. Sorry, I’ve Just Broken My Amplifier (spoken interlude)

2. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

3. Honey Bee

4. County Farm

5. You Wreck Me

6. Shakin’ All Over

7. Free Fallin’

8. Mary Jane’s Last Dance

9. Bye Bye Johnny

10. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

11. It’s All Over Now

12. Louie Louie

13. Gloria

14. Alright For Now

15. Goodnight (spoken interlude)

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