If you want to say that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ “Live at The Fillmore (1997)” is one of the best live rock albums ever, you could also say that it’s cheating a bit to get there: It’s four hours long, at least in its deluxe version, so there’s a matter of dealing in volume as well as quality. In this instance, though, it doesn’t arrive at its merits without all that length. The longer version of the set includes a huge, unprecedented amount of outside song picks that Petty and company dug into over a historic month-long, 20-gig residency 25 years ago at San Francisco’s venerable small hall. Original hits abounded in the setlists at the time, too, but it’s truly a case of “By their covers shall ye know them.”
Benmont Tench, who was the keyboardist for the Heartbreakers from their inception in the 1970s through Petty’s death in 2017, and Ryan Ulyate, Petty’s producer in his latter era and the keeper of the archival keys, discussed with Variety what made the original run legendary among fans, and what went into making the newly released boxed set (and its more condensed cousin) work.
During the 20 nights that the Heartbreakers played substantially different sets back in ’97, Tench recalls, “I don’t remember it ever feeling like, ‘Well, we’ve got this down. We know what we’re doing here. I know what’s gonna happen tonight. And that made me really, really happy,” he says.
“We were being what I had always wanted us to be,” the keyboardist adds, “which was a band that pulls stuff out in the middle of the set, off the cuff, or that learns three or four songs in a soundcheck just to throw ’em in.” Up to that point he had had some jealousy of the more free-wheeling approach of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “and other bands on smaller levels and bigger that were changing it up and just going, ‘Hey, let’s throw this in. This will be fun. Let’s try it. Let’s challenge ourselves.’ I loved watching Steve Nieve when he’d pull some entirely different thread out of his head and play something on the Vox Continental where he’d played it on the piano the previous time I’d seen them. That was what I wanted to do…
“And in the early days we would do that sometimes, but by the time we did the Fillmore, we hadn’t been doing that on the arena stage. Tom had very valid reasons for that,” Tench attests. “For one thing, Tom thought that a set should be really well-crafted to deliver an emotional arc, like an album or like a play or something, and that meant not just pulling stuff out of the air.
“I also think he felt a responsibility to the audience, and it wasn’t to give them a jukebox, but it was to make sure that if they spent all that money on parking, babysitters, tickets, travel, etc., they were going to hear their favorite song. And so unless you do super-long shows like Bruce (Springsteen) or the (Grateful) Dead or whatever, that’s gonna preclude the chance” to emphasize spontaneity. “But when the decision was made to play the Fillmore for 20 nights, then that was the whole reason to play the Fillmore.”
Of the 20 shows, the last six were professionally recorded, and it was the task of Ulyate and his co-producer on the new set, Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, to sift through the tapes and find the best takes. There were some songs that appeared in the first 14 shows that did not make it into “Live at the Fillmore, but Ulyate says that every song the band played even once during those final six nights is represented in the four-hour deluxe edition — 58 tracks, 35 of which are covers. That version of the new album exists as a four-CD or six-LP set. If you don’t need that much Heartbreakers in your life, there is a more distilled version that is only two CDs or three LPs, running only two hours, and containing 33 tracks, 18 of which are covers. (Read Jem Aswad’s review of the collection here.)
“So you’ve kind of got your introductory version and your hardcore version,” says Ulyate. Even with the mammoth four-hour edition, Ulyate says, “It does still have the arc of a massive concert. And actually the last night that they did was not that much less than four hours anyway, as they kept on playing encore after encore. … When you’re sequencing an album, sometimes you go, ‘Gosh, it’s going on a little too long.’ And every so often we’d find a song and I’d go, ‘Where are we gonna put this? Because one thing I learned from Tom is that everything has to fit together — the sequencing and the story, that ebb and flow. Somehow we managed to get all the songs that they did (over those six nights) and make it work” for any brave soul who might take in all that flow in the flow of a single sitting.
Ulyate points out that many of the songs included in the box were never heard again on Petty’s stage, with one clear, recurring exception. “After that run, (the Them/Van Morrison classic) ‘Gloria’ became a staple of their encore songs for a few years; all the other cover songs never got that love anymore.” Does he have any favorite deep tracks included in the set? “‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ still blows my mind,” he says of Bill Withers’ chestnut, “with the whole ‘I know, I know, I know, I know’ going on forever. That’s just a lot of fun. The other one to me is when you hear the first couple chords of of ‘Angel Dream No. 2,’ and he’s kind of getting into the vibe to do that. And somebody yells, ‘Heartbreakers Beach party,” which is just an obscure B-side”…” from the early ’80s, and Petty led the band right into that instead.
Talking about their early development in the ’70s, Tench says, “The Heartbreakers were a band that loved to play covers, so early on in the touring history, we played ‘Dark End of the Street.’ We played James Brown’s ‘Good, Good Lovin’.’ I think we may have played the Ricky Nelson ‘Waitin’ in School’ once or twice with Stan (Lynch, their original drummer) on gigs. And of course if we were rehearsing, that’s what we were doing. In order not to rehearse, we would play a bunch of covers!”
The Fillmore represented a return to that like few other engagements the band did, although they pulled out a lot of covers again in a few residencies in the years that followed, including extended runs at the Beacon in New York, the Fonda in L.A. and the Vic in Chicago.
Tench emphasizes that this was all Petty’s concept, although it made the keyboardist’s dream for the band come true. “We could play whatever the hell we wanted and we didn’t have to rehearse it, necessarily. And the audience was with us the whole way. They were delighted if we played ‘Goldfinger’ — which did need rehearsal. So did ‘Slaughter on 10th Avenue.’ ‘Satisfaction’ certainly needed no rehearsal! I don’t think ‘It’s All Over Now’ needed a rehearsal. We should have rehearsed what’s called ‘Bye Bye, Johnny’ on the record, because Tom starts it as (Chuck Berry’s) ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ but after the first verse, he can’t remember the words clearly, so he sings some sort of version of ‘Bye Bye Johnny.’ Clearly, there’s another rehearsal (needed) there. Other songs, he’d just start playing it and we’d fall in, because we knew how to do that. It was just joyous, you know?”
Tench notes that this ability to pick up the ball immediately, under pressure, is why they were able to tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band (as well as opening act) in the early ’80s. “With Bob, we were really good at falling in on anything. The most we spent rehearsal with Bob would be endings. The first time we went out with Bob to Australia and New Zealand to Japan, we spent like a week, I think, working on endings, endings, endings. Those would be a little bit trickier. But as far as the songs went, unless it was more obscure, like ‘In the Garden,’ we could just fall in on Bob songs. We ran through them anyway. But still, on the tour, he would decide to just play ‘Desolation Row,’ which we’d never rehearsed.”