It is nearly 25 years since Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers released their last live album, though there have been a variety of DVDs through the years. The Live Anthology covers all the gaps in between with recordings from as early as 1980 to as recent as 2007. The wonderful thing about Petty is that he doesn’t just copycat the studio versions but allows The Heartbreakers to jam it up and when you have players of the calibre of Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench around you so you should! Petty’s Heartbreakers are perhaps the biggest in demand session players in rock and they have the ability to make good songs really great in the live setting. There are far too many highlights over these four discs to mention but as well as the most familiar Refugee, American Girl and Free Falling there are those songs that got lost in the sizeable catalogue that get rediscovered here like Straight Into Darkness, Nightwatchman and Have Love, Will Travel. Beyond those there are the rarities like Surrender, a Petty composition never before released, and covers like I Just Want To Make Love to You, Good Good Lovin’, Green Onions and bizarrely the Bond theme Goldfinger.
The centre piece for me is the cover of Van Morrison’s Mystic Eyes and not just because it is a Florida band singing a song from the streets around my Church in Belfast. In this eight minute version, of an originally less than three minute Them single, Petty slows the band and hushes them down before chanting, “Wouldn’t it be great if just for one moment everything was all right.” It is rock n roll theatre, playing with the emotions of the crowd but it is also a fundamental purpose of rock music. Many have damned rock as of the devil, destructive and damaging to the world order. Yet, Petty’s purity of hopefulness in the middle of Mystic Eyes fires much of the rock n roll that we love. It is constructive, seeking a better day, challenging any oppressive systems or regimes. From the Negro Spirituals that rock was born out of to Springsteen, U2 and Tom Petty music has fired the dream of a better day. Petty’s chant could be about music as escapism, as much pop has been in these last fifty years, but more than escapism music has the potential to be transformative to the personal soul or the social structures and injustices around us.
This Live Anthology does not reveal Petty as a political rock artist though he has fought his battles through the years, neither is it meaningless fluff. Petty is a major player in the history of rock and this Anthology show the consistent quality of his work.