Live at the Fillmore: Review

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

It was a rare circumstance 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 itself in fresh directions, elevating the band’s stature in the process. As Petty notes before “Alright for Now” sends us home, “We really feel like this is the high point of our whole time together as a group.” A good time was indeed 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 Live Anthology, Fillmore, culled 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 excellent form. The group was somewhat refreshed from a short hiatus and, as is made clear by this album, ready to make some major musical statements.

Those are dotted throughout the Fillmore sets. You can start the music anywhere on the 33- or 72-song packages and find a gem. The shows were filled with hits and covers; Chuck Berry‘s “Around and Around,” with its declaration that “the joint was rockin’,” 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‘s “Call Me the Breeze” before pausing for breath and leaving the listener panting for more.

And so it goes throughout. The highlights are abundant. It’s particularly great 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 get “Eight Miles High” with the ByrdsRoger 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 instruments such as 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 Tench‘s favorite song to play. Before “Diddy Wah Diddy,” Petty declares its writer, Bo Diddley, “a man who should be elected president of America.”

Just how deep the Heartbreakers dig here is evidenced by “On the Street,” a tune Petty says Tench wrote for the band during 1974 back in the band’s native Florida. The group’s playful side also gets an abundant airing, including a first-time-ever “Heartbreakers Beach Party” performance and the tongue-in-cheek, 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 takes on “It’s Good to Be King,” “Honey Bee” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”

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

Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers: Where Are They Now?

The surviving members continue to forge new paths. 

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