Revisiting Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Live Anthology’
When Tom Petty decided he wanted to encapsulate what he and the Heartbreakers could do in concert, he went all the way. To give you an idea of how extensive The Live Anthology was, the bare-bones edition included 48 tracks spread over four CDs. Of course, when you consider that the project began with recordings of 5,200 different live songs spread over three decades, it seems that this boxed set was actually an exercise in restraint.
In 2008, veteran engineer Ryan Ulyate created an iTunes archive of the rough mixes of Heartbreakers performances dating back to 1976. Next, Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell listened to every track, giving their feedback to Ulyate, who ranked each selection with a star system. According to the engineer, Petty and Campbell weren't seeking a certain amount of material (say, enough for a double or a triple album), but simply wanted to include the most ideal recordings, all without any overdubbing.
Once the best of the best had been selected, Ulyate mixed the tracks to ensure that listeners wouldn't experience a disparity between songs recorded at early '80s shows and performances from 2007. Keeping the sound quality consistent allowed the triumvirate of producers (Petty, Campbell and Ulyate) to sequence individual discs without regard to chronology. Instead, they crafted each disc of The Live Anthology as if it was a distinct live set, with a distinct arch and variance in material.
And the material on these albums turned out to be nothing if not varied. Sure, there are plenty of muscular versions of Heartbreakers (and Petty solo) hits, from "Refugee" to "Free Fallin'." But there are also lesser-known album cuts, such as lead-off track "Nightwatchman" and Wildflowers chestnut "Crawling Back to You." There was also a bevy of previously unreleased stuff, like "Drivin' Down to Georgia" and "Melinda."
Sprinkled in between Petty and the Heartbreakers' own material is a bevy of fabulous covers, spanning James Brown ("Good, Good Lovin'"), Booker T. and the M.G.'s ("Green Onions"), the Grateful Dead ("Friend of the Devil") and Van Morrison ("Mystic Eyes"). The cover songs, more than some of the hits, spotlight how lively, multi-faceted and fun the band has been over the years. Those are sides of the Heartbreakers that their studio albums never quite captured, yet they remain the best reasons for seeing the band in concert.
Befitting a big release from a legendary artist in the 21st century, The Live Anthology' was issued in a multitude of different ways on Nov. 23, 2009. There was the standard four-CD set, a deluxe edition with an extra disc of performances and two unreleased DVDs, an all-vinyl edition, as well as a digital "Superhighway Tour" version that allowed access to all 48 tracks combined with exclusive commentary from band members, live photos and more.
However, they chose to experience The Live Anthology, fans and critics received the set warmly. It hit No. 51 on the charts, while rock writers made favorable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's similarly exhaustive Live 1975-85. Others focused on the Heartbreakers' consistency through the years, something made more impressive by the lineup shifts that took place.
Sure, Petty, Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench remain at the center of everything here, while only certain tracks feature drummers Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone, bassists Ron Blair or Howie Epstein and multi-instrumentalist Scott Thurston.
Regardless of era, this box set proved what a dependable live powerhouse the Heartbreakers were (and continue to be), whether they're turning "Learning to Fly" into a singalong hymn or ripping through Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man."