I could sit and listen to and read about Tom Petty outtakes for hours. In fact, over the past few months of a slowed-down life, I have. Following the evolution of 1994’s Wildflowers from demo to studio to album to live shows has been fascinating. Last fall, when the Wildflowers & All the Rest box set was first released, the alternate studio versions were reserved for those who plunked down enough cash for the “super deluxe” version (and don’t think I wasn’t tempted). Patience has paid off for us, though, as the new release, Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions), includes 15 different cuts from the sessions that produced Petty’s best album, plus a gorgeous new song we’ve not heard before now, all taking us for one last walk among the wildflowers while allowing us to imagine a somewhat different path.
Of the 15 tracks found on the original Wildflowers record, three have gotten the “full” reissue treatment – home demo, album cut, studio alternate, and in-concert – across the box set release cycle, so we’ll start with those:
“Wildflowers,” captured mostly as Petty was writing it on the home recording (which is beyond stunning), had orchestration added by composer Michael Kamen for the album take, and its live version is augmented with Mike Campbell on mandolin and Benmont Tench on piano (appropriately, the album and live versions bookend the Wildflowers Deluxe Edition). The rendition on Finding features a busted take and Ringo Starr on drums. It’s a bit more insistent than the eventual album track, but the gorgeous harmony vocals from Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein (not present on the final cut) are worth hearing.
“Crawling Back To You” recorded at home gives us harmonies from Petty and a surprise, ethereal electric guitar solo. The album version remains one of Petty’s saddest songs (even though he was divorced in 1996, his marriage was falling apart during the writing and recording of Wildflowers, released in 1994). He seems to have grown quite fond of the song by the time of its live recording in 2017 (in what ended up being his last tour), as he tells the crowd, “We don’t often play this one; it’s always been one of my favorites.” But the take found on Finding is less mysterious, ominous or resigned. It begins with a Knopfler-esque lick from Campbell before it becomes an actual rock song – faster and moving forward before reaching a guitar/piano trade-off with Tench (side note – Campbell and Tench may be the best pair of outright musicians to ever play in a rock band, and this is coming from a longtime E Street guy). It’s different, to be sure, but still sad, still gorgeous, and still including one of rock’s all-time lines of regret, “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.”
“Wake Up Time,” in its infant form, merely hints at its eventual drama – it’s piano and Petty’s near-ghostly vocals. The final cut, which wraps Wildflowers, goes from delicate to theatrical, but it still rests on Petty’s singing and piano-playing (no Tench here). Live, it gets more guitar-ish, with Petty on rhythm and Campbell on mandolin – it has a sweet, “MTV Unplugged” vibe while drawing even more attention to Petty’s almost-wispy vocals. Listening to the alternate version, though, feels like the best song Whiskeytown never recorded – a mix of country rock and Southern drama. Tench is on piano and synth here (the decision was eventually made to use Petty’s take on the keys), but it’s the guitar work from Petty and Campbell that really pops. As with “Crawling,” you can see why the album cuts landed where they did, but these other takes are great listening, with or without knowledge of the choices made for the finished product.
There’s lots more to like on Finding Wildflowers, most prominently “You Saw Me Comin’,” a previously unreleased gem that slots in as one of Petty’s best road songs (and, really, has anyone even written more sunny-day, top-down, mash-the-pedal-to-the-floor drivin’ tunes?). The song runs on Tench’s piano and synth and Stan Lynch’s propulsive drumming, resulting in a very Heartbreakers feel that Petty wasn’t really looking for on Wildflowers, but it works well for those of us who, in 2021, long to get back out on the road.
Other highlights on Finding include “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” (speaking of great road songs), a concert staple that somehow never made it onto a record. The take on “It’s Good to Be KIng” is slower, making an already melancholy song downright depressing. An acoustic take on “Cabin Down Below” highlights Epstein’s contributions on harmony vocals, always such an underrated part of the Heartbreakers’ magic. “Don’t Fade on Me” features some amazing acoustic work from Petty and Campbell. And we can’t forget everyone’s favorite deep cut, “Honey Bee.” The take here isn’t quite as bombastic but just as charmingly sleazy as the album cut we know and love. There are a few lyrical and sovereignty switch-ups (“King of Pomona” replaces “Milwaukee” at one point), but the “boy in short pants” (one of rock’s best descriptions of outright lust) is still here, this time describing his object of affection as a “Mississippi jelly cake.” I have no idea what it means, but I know exactly what he’s saying, and I love it.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: Any of the above, really, with the Heartbreakers and a rotating cast of singers, a celebratory tour of Wildflowers that Petty himself had envisioned before his passing.
Go here to order Finding Wildflowers (Alternate Versions): https://store.tompetty.com/