by Rick Krueger
When I heard that Tom Petty had died, I dug into my Closet Full of Box Sets and pulled out this baby. Released in 2009, it came in two versions: a four-CD set with 48 tracks (still available at a super-bargain price) and the Best Buy-only version with an extra CD, one of the first 96K/24 bit audio Blu-rays that included all the songs, two DVDs (a 1978 concert and a 1994 documentary), a replica of a 4-song vinyl promo EP from 1976, various and sundry tchotchkes, and a ludicrous price tag. Guess which one I bought?
Listening to The Live Anthology again over the past week, Petty’s songwriting struck me again as solid, unpretentious and down to earth; it hasn’t resonated that strongly in my life, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile and well done. A lot of my favorite moments on the set come when TP quiets down and pours himself into the forms of classic country and folk. Songs like “Wildflowers” (which feels like an obscure Carter Family tune), the beautiful, hushed lullaby “Alright for Now” (the closer for the four-CD set), and the agrarian hymn “Southern Accents” skip overblown, Springsteen-style myth-making and just communicate — plain-spoken, deeply felt, lovely.
And then there are the Heartbreakers. Back in my college days, I used to read Stereo Review regularly, mostly for Steve Simels’ rock reviews — agree or disagree, they were always opinionated and entertaining. Truer words may have never been written than Simels’ New Jersey-style summation of TP & the HBs’ work on Damn the Torpedoes: “Dese guys is good.” On the evidence of The Live Anthology, they stayed that way for more than 30 years. Always in sync, almost telepathic at times, Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench weave elegant, immersive webs of rock, blues, and R & B over a variety of unflappable, grooving rhythm sections. Whether it’s the Byrdsy power pop of “I Need to Know,” “Even the Losers” and “The Waiting,” mega-hits a la “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “Free Fallin’,” extended jams like “It’s Good to Be King” and the previously unreleased “Melinda,” or a head-spinning range of cover tunes (a surf instrumental version of “Goldfinger”? Booker T & the MGs’ “Green Onions”? Van Morrison, Conway Twitty and the Grateful Dead?), the band always sounds lean and soulful, consistently in the moment, listening for the inherent magic and then doing what’s needed to make it happen.
For a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Petty rented out our local arena to get ready for his US tours. Now I kind of regret that the closest I got to hearing him live was serving beer at one of the concession stands for his 2008 Grand Rapids show. (There are soundproofed plastic flaps over the arena entrances; plus, I served a lot of beer that night.) For people like me who missed the chance, The Live Anthology is an eloquent testimony to what the man and his band could do at their best. Listen to the complete deluxe version here: