Take the Southern rock fandom you’ll find every October during Jason Isbell’s week-plus run at the Ryman Auditorium, mix in the recent ticket frenzy over Taylor Swift’s stadium tour, and you might get a wisp of an idea of the fuss over Tom Petty’s 20-show stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore. Nearly a month of seatless shows in a venue barely half of the size of the Ryman? In 1997, before you could order (or get shut out of) tickets from the palm of your hand? Even one of the best bands on the planet (then or ever) had to be special every single night to match the anticipation and commitment shown by their most ardent fans. As the long-awaited documentation of the best of those shows finally sees its release, Live at the Fillmore (1997) gives listeners a veteran band who’s as interested in exploring their musical roots as they are in playing the hits.
Fans of SiriusXM’s Buried Treasure will adore Live at the Fillmore. The still-airing show on Tom Petty Radio features the singer playing the tunes he grew up on, but Fillmore does it even better, with the band taking big swings at Chuck Berry (“Around and Around”, a showcase for guitarist Mike Campbell), early Stones (“Time Is on My Side”) and The Zombies (“I Want You Back Again,” with a nice hippie groove that gives Benmont Tench a chance to shine on organ). Better, though, are the times when Petty’s heroes show up. Mentor Roger McGuinn comes in on Disc 3 of the deluxe set for The Byrds’ “It Won’t Be Wrong” (filled with, unsurprisingly, solid harmonies) and Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” before the gang busts out the McGuinn/Gram Parsons classic flip-off “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man.” Later on, John Lee Hooker shows up to school the boys on the blues. In particular, an almost eight-minute take on “Boogie Chillen,” with nasty guitar work and Hooker egging on the harmonica-playing Petty and whipping the tightly-packed crowd to a near-frenzy.
As for the Petty classics – they’re best represented by “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (is Campbell’s outro on this song the best guitar solo ever? Discuss), “The Wild One, Forever” (maybe his most underappreciated gem) and one of my favorite moments on the collection, a downbeat take on the usually anthemic “I Won’t Back Down.” It may not pep up a 90,000-strong crowd at a Florida Gators game, but the stripped-down version comes off as more singularly resolute (and, yes, the Fillmore crowd engages in their own, downsized sing-along).
The album, and the shows in general, were an opportunity for the band to stretch out beyond its original “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus” ethos (and when you’ve got players like the Heartbreakers, why the hell wouldn’t you?). In their later years, Petty and the band embraced a certain degree of jamminess, and these dates in San Fran proved to be the perfect spot to honor some of their less poppy, more expansive influences. In particular, J.J. Cale has a large presence on Live at the Fillmore. His “Call Me the Breeze” gets a Southern-fried take supplemented with a barrelhouse piano solo, with Petty intoning “Let the boy play” as we’re reminded that Tench may be the best ever at what he does. That jam gets spread over Petty originals, too – “It’s Good to Be King” is maybe the band’s radio hit that benefits most from being played live. It becomes both deeper in its loneliness and, thanks to six-plus minutes of piano and guitar riffing, more musically exciting. Campbell seems to cycle through several generations of guitar solos, each moment topping the last. This recording, perhaps more than anything, makes me regret having never seen the band live. And, while listening to Live at the Fillmore (1997) isn’t quite the same as shoehorning yourself into a tiny theater, it’s a perfect and varied record of one of our most gifted songwriters and one of our best bands at the very top of their game.
Live at the Fillmore (1997) features Tom Petty, Benmont Tench (piano, keys), Mike Campbell (guitars, vocals), Steve Ferrone (drums), Howie Epstein (bass, vocals) and Scott Thurston (guitars, vocals). Guests include Roger McGuinn and John Lee Hooker.
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