Within the upper echelon of “heartland rock,” at this late date, it all boils down to a crucial question: Springsteen or Petty? The third member of the Holy Trinity, Bob Seger, more or less took himself out of the game over the last couple of decades, while John Mellencamp’s never really been much more than a dim reflection of the others to begin with, so at this juncture—with all the aforementioned Americana rockers having reached sexagenarian status—it’s basically about Bruce and Tom.
Even the members of roots-rock royalty are only ever as good as their bands, be they E Street, Silver Bullet, or Heartbreakers, and there’s no better measure of a great band’s prowess than the mark they make in concert. So the ultimate proving ground in the recording realm becomes not the studio album but the live anthology. But we’re not talking about your standard-issue live album here—both Petty and Springsteen have released those. No, a grand-scale summary of the concert repertoire is what’s really required to take the artistic temperature of an act in this arena (pun only partially intended).
In this context, one might suggest that Springsteen made a crucial mistake by playing his hand too soon, releasing the three-disc box set Live/1975-85 in 1986, even though he couldn’t have known how many subsequent years of concert triumphs he’d be excluding from the collection. But to call a spade a spade, Bruce’s biggest blunder in our little imaginary competition was in valuing strength over subtlety. They don’t call him The Boss for nothing—Springsteen’s sound has always been about larger-than-life statements delivered with an almost Wagnerian grandeur. As he’s the master of the mode, it’s often thrilling, but it also precludes the possibilities inherent in a lower-key lean, especially live, and that’s where The Heartbreakers come into the picture.
Where the inspirations for the E Street approach come from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound productions and Roy Orbison’s pathos-ridden rock operettas, the comparatively laconic Petty and his Gainesville gang were modeled more after the supple, sinuous feel of the famed Southern soul sessionmen of Muscle Shoals, AL, the minimalist R&B grooves of Booker T. & The M.G.’s, and the laid-back country funk of J.J. Cale. Those are the roots The Heartbreakers bring to bear while breathing life into Petty’s tunes, but while there’s nary an ounce of flash or bombast to be found anywhere near a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers concert, there’s no shortage of soulful fire and pure rock & roll energy either. With characteristic caginess, Tom waited another quarter-century after Bruce to bring out his big live box set, simply dubbed The Live Anthology, released at the tail end of 2009. In its deluxe version, it took five CDs, two DVDs, a Blu-Ray disc, and a wealth of graphic-oriented extras to tell its tale of a band with three decades-plus of tasteful-but-torrid road-rocking behind them.
Petty and company have just wrapped up the 2012 world tour that took them to Europe for the first time in 20 years, including two nights in London’s legendary Royal Albert Hall and a high-profile stop at the Isle of Wight festival. To commemorate the occasion, Universal UK saw fit to reissue the aforementioned deluxe version of Live Anthology, consequently reminding the world of the wonders contained therein and giving us all an opportunity to take a closer look at its contents.
The first thing you might notice about Live Anthology if you’re reading the liner notes is the last thing you’ll notice if you aren’t. Petty purposely avoided chronological order as he painstakingly sequenced the set’s 61 songs. Valuing seamless segues with mood in mind more than archival order, he made the set move freely from era to era, sometimes ending up with gaps of decades between one track and the next. The amazing thing is that, apart from tunes that didn’t exist until later in the band’s career, this era-hopping is generally impossible to hear. If that’s not a tribute to the timeless talents of this band, then nothing is.
One of the real pleasures for Petty fans on Live Anthology is the wealth of tunes (both covers and original songs) that have never made it onto one of the band’s studio albums. One of the first cover tunes to appear is among the most telling—a 2006 version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” that’s seemingly inspired more by The Yardbirds’ arrangement of the song, underlining the way Petty and his pals, like many American musicians of their generation, rediscovered their own roots via the mid-‘60s British blues boom. A sultry 1995 take on the Willie Dixon-penned Muddy Waters classic “I Just Want To Make Love To You” notwithstanding, the point is further underscored by Petty’s interpretation of “Oh Well,” a signature song from the Peter Green-led ‘60s blues-rock incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. A 1997 visit to The Zombies’ “I Want You Back Again” and an ’06 reading of the Van Morrison-fronted Them’s “Mystic Eyes” drive the idea home with even more certainty, but the latter also touches on the band’s passion for ’60 rock rave-ups (equally discernible in a down-and-dirty, amped-up cover of The Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It”). The soul side of the group comes out on their versions of the Wilson Pickett Hit “I’m In Love” and James Brown’s “Good Good Lovin’.” The twangier side of the band evolved from Petty and some of his Heartbreakers’ shared past in early-’70s country-rock group Mudcrutch (Petty himself has become a crucial influence on contemporary country), and you can hear it come out in covers of Conway Twitty’s “Image of Me” and the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”
Among the most striking of the Petty originals that never graduated from the stage to the studio is “Melinda,” a moody, minor-key tune awash with unsettling insinuations, which Petty says was inspired by Johnny Cash (Remember, Petty and The Heartbreakers played on the country king’s Unchained album). The straight-up rocker “Surrender” is an early Petty composition that he claims he finally gave up on perfecting in the studio after Cheap Trick scored a hit with a song of the same name in ’78 (though the studio outtake of the tune was eventually included as a bonus cut on the reissued, remastered Damn The Torpedoes).
But Live Anthology isn’t all about the ephemera by any means. If you’re under the impression you’ve heard the definitive recordings of “Even The Losers,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Jammin’ Me,” “Here Comes My Girl,” et al. before absorbing the versions to be found here, you’ve got a pleasant surprise in store for you. Speaking of what’s in store for you—the additions to the deluxe package that can’t be found on the standard version of the set include a fifth CD of live tracks, a DVD documentary about the band on the road during the Wildflowers tour, a concert DVD of a show from 1978, a vinyl LP of Official Live ‘Leg (a rare recording from a ’76 concert), a Blu-Ray disc containing all the CD tracks in hi-def sound, and a bounty of visually oriented extras (a poster, a lithograph, reproductions of backstage passes from various Petty tours, and other items too numerous to detail here). So toss this bad boy up against Live/1975-85, and see which one comes up on top. Even if you still think it’s Springsteen, it’s a win/win situation here, especially for the listener. Even the losers get lucky sometimes.