Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Live Wires


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By: Dennis Cook

As you dig into the story behind the jams, check out these sweet tracks from the Live Anthology now:

“Nightwatchman" from 6/30/81, The Forum, Los Angeles, CA

“Here Comes My Girl" from 3/6/80, Hammersmith Odeon, London, UK
“Mary Jane's Last Dance" from 9/21/06, Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville, FL

Tom Petty by Steve Wilson

“I'm Tom Petty and behind me are The Heartbreakers. We're going to have a good time tonight. I promise you that."

These words were spoken before more than 60,000 people in the early minutes of Petty and The Heartbreakers' jaw-dropping Bonnaroo performance in 2006, but they might well have been said at any time, on any stage in this band's 33-year journey. This is a rock & roll unit that delivers the goods time and time again in concert, and if one ever needed empirical proof of their enduring live potency it's right there on Live Anthology (released November 23 on Warner Brothers), spread out over four thoughtfully chosen and sequenced discs that offer compelling glimpses into the group's history on stages from 1978-2006 (plus a DVD of their 1978 New Year's Eve show in Santa Monica, CA is included in the swanky Collector's Edition), where they have consistently fulfilled the promise of a good time.

“I want us to do that, and I also want us to have a good times ourselves. If we aren't then nobody else is gonna. But I'm selfish that way. I want to get up there and have a really good time," says Benmont Tench, keyboardist and co-founder of The Heartbreakers.

“[Live Anthology] was a daunting task. You're looking at 30 years of performing to find the definitive live versions of songs. Organizing and finding all the tapes was a year's work, and then finding the best takes was probably another year," says guitarist-songwriter-co-founder Mike Campbell, who selected the material on Anthology with Petty. “It was Tom's idea at the beginning to not go chronologically. We just wanted to find the best performances despite what year they might be. And we didn't want to overlook anything, so went over everything. Over time we narrowed it down. If there was a problem with the sound or the band wasn't really on fire we'd just move on to the next take. It became so overwhelming to listen to things that we got to a point where we'd mostly focus on the vocal. Usually if the vocal was in the game then the band was right there with him. That's how we play; we play off of Tom's singing."

One of the real pleasures of the newly released anthology is the bumper crop of primo cover tunes including Fleetwood Mac's “Oh Well," Thunderclap Newman's “Something In The Air," Booker T & The MG's' “Green Onions," Van Morrison's “Mystic Eyes," Bo Diddley's “Diddy Wah Diddy," Grateful Dead's “Friend of the Devil," Dave Clark Five's “Any Way You Want It," J.J. Cale's “I'd Like To Love You Baby," The Byrds' “Ballad of Easy Rider," and the James Bond Goldfinger theme. To call the mix eclectic hardly seems adequate, and it speaks to their depths both as musicians and ardent fans of other's work.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers by Steve Wilson

“When I heard we were putting out a live record I was really afraid [laughs]. Because with live records, traditionally, you might get a cover or you might get an obscure song but basically it's going to be the hits played live. We don't change the arrangements a lot on the hits, sometimes, and I think we're much better as a live band than a recorded band but still," observes Tench, trailing off with a worried tone. “Then, I found out they were going through everything and Mike and Tom were getting excited about what they were hearing and wanted to do a comprehensive live set that covered the rhythm sections we've had - Howie [Epstein] (bass) and Stan [Lynch] (drums) (1982-1994), Howie and Ferrone (Steve Ferrone, drums) (1994-2002), Ron [Blair] (bass) and Stan (1975-1982), and Ron and Ferrone (2002-present). And I was excited that it had the crazy stuff like 'Any Way You Want It,' and especially that it had [boffo Petty rarities] 'Driving Down To Georgia' and 'Lost Without You' on it. What we have on Live Anthology is what the band sounds like to me. A recording is a brief experience; it's a brief period of time. The real band is the live shows and the jams and the rehearsals."

“Covers are always fun, and there's so many great songs out there. At rehearsal someone will have heard something and we'll play it just for fun, and if it sounds good we'll put it in the show," says Campbell. “We did find quite a few live gems, and we wanted to include that because I think it shows a depth to the band that maybe people haven't seen before. It's fun and it shows our influences and inspirations. It just adds more depth for the listener, I hope."

“We grew up all listening to the same radio, except for Steve Ferrone [who is British and a former member of the Average White Band that began playing with Petty during the Wildflower sessions in '94]. It's a total trip because there'll be songs that were hits on both sides of the Atlantic but another band will have had the hit in England. So, we'll start playing a song and he's playing it the way he heard it by some other band when he was a kid. But we all grew up with a love for the same kind of music," says Tench. “We all love country music - real country music, not this awful, awful, awful mockery they put out today. They should be ashamed, and what they call R&B today has NOTHING to do with R&B; it's disgraceful. But, we all grew up with a love for country, bluegrass, psychedelic music, three-minute pop songs, and by 'pop song' I don't mean candy type pop. The Rolling Stones, Beatles, Zombies and The Who's early singles were 'pop' as in 'popular' music but they rock! Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, we all loved that stuff. And what're you gonna do about Bo Diddley!?! There's everything right there."

The extremely reasonable price tag ($24.98 list) of Live Anthology - a four CD set with an extensive booklet of essays, song-by-song commentary by Petty, and a cool online Super Highway Tour companion site full of pics, band commentary and behind the scenes info - is indicative of a career-long dedication to holding down costs with their fans in mind while still offering a quality product.

“We've always kinda fought for keeping ticket prices down. It's our responsibility I think. I always put myself in their shoes. It costs a lot of money to go to a concert, and we certainly don't need to gouge the people that love us," says Campbell. “There's built-in inflation. Tours now are more expensive, so there's the balancing act of trying to get the production costs taken care of without sticking it to the punter. We do the best we can."

There is a strong sense of history and tradition in Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, where one doesn't need to guess at their lineage. You can hear the primal hip shake and country and blues roots of rock & roll in their music.

Tom Petty by Kevin Scanlon

“There was a wonderful thing going on in the '60s, where everything hadn't been homogenized. There was a lot of discovery. Us white kids in the South were getting most of our knowledge about the blues from hearing the first Bluesbreakers album with Eric Clapton and then reading him talking about B.B. King and going out and getting Live At The Regal [1965] and going, 'Holy cow!' Or it maybe was hearing The Rolling Stones talk about Howlin' Wolf or The Beatles talking about Carl Perkins and then checking that stuff out," says Tench. “That's what was great when you hear people talking about the '60s, all this stuff was crossing and people were really excited and enthusiastic about it and finding their own way to do it. And it's going on now, though I don't really think it's happening on radio from the little I hear. I have a lot of young friends in their twenties who give me mix tapes that have great stuff I've never heard from the '40s, '50s and '60s. The Internet and file sharing now works the way radio used to work when it had this great cross-section of stuff in the Top 40."

“So, that's where we all came from. I was lucky enough to walk into a room and meet Tom and Mike and have them show me songs by so & so and me show them songs by so & so," continues Tench. “For instance, we all loved this band named Daddy Cool, an Australian group that was just fantastic and obscure as you can get. One of the first times I went to Tom's house he said, 'Check this out,' and put on this Daddy Cool record. It was something I'd heard a couple weeks before on the college radio station and was blown away but didn't know who it was. And I'm sitting there with Tom and thinking 'Okay, this is good. This will work.'"

In a nutshell, the Petty and The Heartbreakers sound hums with the Southern overtones of gospel, bluegrass and country but all infused and morphed by a profound love of '60s British Invasion acts. As much as critical darlings Big Star, Petty and The Heartbreakers fused the sturdy bones of American traditional music with the rebellious, pleasantly experimental gusto of The Beatles, The Zombies, etc.

“That's exactly what we are. We grew up in the South around a lot of bluegrass and real country music. And for Tom and the rest of us, when The Beatles and the Stones came along that was our time and it influenced us greatly. I notice when we play that we draw from both of those worlds," says Campbell. “If you really dig deep, especially the Stones but The Beatles too, were drawing from American blues and R&B, so it all kinda ties together."

Benmont Tench by Dennis Callahan

Though many see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as the epitome of heartland Middle American rock, the majority of the band hails from Gainesville, Florida. A college town filled with small venues, Gainesville is a fertile breeding ground for bands, and as recently as 2008 Blender Magazine named it the “Best Place to Start a Band in the United States." It is a place with a strong black/white racial mix and a history that touches on the state's first citrus boom in the 1800s, the Civil War, and more.

“Well, the Allman Brothers were from Daytona Beach and Skynyrd was from Jacksonville. Ray Charles went to the St. Augustine School for the Blind. Stephen Stills went through [Gainesville] to go to the University of Florida, as did Faye Dunaway and Bernie Leadon [Eagles co-founder]. It's a wonderful place Gainesville," says Tench. “To this day there's a lot of music. When I walk up and down the main street on late night walks there are all these little storefront clubs or record stores that have bands playing after hours. When I was growing it was like this too, but when The Heartbreakers came back to woodshed in the disco '70s it seemed pretty bleak. But it's certainly thriving right now."

When it's suggested Gainesville's sort of widespread communal engagement with shared live music is vaguely European, Tench quickly responds, “Actually it's very American. Before there was radio and TV people sat around the house and played. Everybody knew how to play an instrument; it was part of being a well-rounded person in every walk of life. That was entertainment, friendship, relationship, all that stuff. My experience in the last couple years is it's coming back. I live in Los Angeles, where everybody should be in it for the deal, like as a guy I met at a pickin' party pointed out, it's usually people getting together and asking, 'How much are you going to pay me to rehearse?' Well, I've fallen in with a crowd of people who like to just get together and sit around the house and play. It's great. Mike Campbell comes over to my house to play, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, Sean and Sara Watkins [Nickel Creek] - it's marvelous. It's not for the sake of anything other than for the sake of playing. It's not a career move."

“My favorite stuff that The Heartbreakers do is at sound checks and rehearsals. Heartbreakers rehearsals are 75-percent sitting around and playing stuff and 25-percent playing what we need to learn to play. So, it's always been about that, to me, and it's really wonderful that I've found people who think like that today, people who sit around and play acoustically; things I don't know," continues Tench. “Tom Leadon from Mudcrutch is one of those people. When he's around he and Campbell are a crazy scene the numbers that they know. They've sat around on a Sunday with me and played songs and it's just so cool! Tom Petty will bring in some old thing he knows or just found and show it to us. That's the deal: Our band is not stagnating by any means. Everybody always learns something new and brings it in."

Live Anthology offers a nice perspective on how The Heartbreakers have changed as a live band over the years, as well as highlighting what a consistent bunch they've been through the decades.

Tom Petty by Susan J. Weiand

“There's a through line with Tom and Mike and I, and the great thing is we have Ron [Blair] back. When Howie left, before he passed away, Ron had come back, so we again had someone who had grown up in Gainesville. He's one of us, and that's really important," says Tench. “We now have Scott Thurston [rhythm guitar, harmonica, synthesizer, backing vocals], who loves the music and he's a really brilliant musician and a wonderful singer. The main difference is the feel. Ferrone's feel is entirely different than Stanley's, and his way of thinking is entirely different than Stanley's. So, that's been an adjustment and it's forced us to pay attention in different ways to how we play and how we interlock the grooves. Steve is a marvelous, stupendous drummer, so it may be subtle to people watching us, but as a musician it's absolutely shaken things up. Stanley is who I grew up playing with. He's from Gainesville and he plays back and listens in a certain way. He rides with the rest of us and doesn't say, 'Here's the beat.' He says, 'I'm with you guys,' and Ferrone says, 'The beat's over here.' That's just a different mindset. Ferrone listens but it's a different thing. I'm really glad you get both of them on [Live Anthology]."

“Well, I think we've grown in maybe our finesse [laughs]. When we were young we were maybe a little inexperienced but there was still a lot of fire and I was pleasantly surprised by the musicianship [when I listened to tapes]. We've improved and aged and all that, but it was really good for what it was. We were just really happy it didn't suck," says Campbell. “This band is based around the singer and the song. We try to serve the song, and as we've played out there's some songs where we can allow the musicians to jam or stretch out. We can do that as well as most bands but it's not what we focus on the most. We've always played around a song. That's what we enjoy and that's what gets us off."

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
By Michael Zagaris

“What we grew up on was Elvis, The Beatles, the Stones, The Beach Boys, where the song was always the main thing. As it got into the '70s it became more about the drum solo or the guitar solo, which is fine for what it is, but we're kind of from a different ilk," says Campbell, whose phenomenal guitar work reflects this focused, economical approach. “If you listen to a Beatles record, guitar does its thing and then gets out of the way of the vocal. Ideally, you come up with a line or a sound that compliments the song and doesn't distract from it. That's the challenge. It's a lot harder than just noodling along."

“The problem we have now with the catalog is with shows at an hour and a half or two hours we can't get to it all. So, we try to pick enough things from the old catalog that people feel like they got their money's worth and then give them a few surprises to take home with them," says Campbell. “If I go to see a band I like and I'm going to buy a ticket and park and walk and take four hours out of my life to give to this experience, then I'd kind of like to get what I wanted, which is to hear the songs I like. So, we look at it that way - these people are there for us and we owe it to them to give them what they paid for. And part of what they paid for is the songs they're familiar with. That's our responsibility. I also think it's our responsibility to give them a little bit extra - a cover or take a song and stretch it out a bit musically and take it to a place it wasn't in the recording - and if you can do both then you've put on a good show."

“We take the setlist and the pacing of a set very seriously. We want it to be a journey that builds to certain peaks and valleys, so it's kind of like - I hate to use the analogy - sex, in a way, so you really get off all together in a certain way," explains Campbell. “Once we have a set that works and does that, if you start throwing things out too much it might upset that. We can inject new songs along the way as long as they don't upset the journey."

One shift with the studio work over the years is more and more of producing has been done by Petty and Campbell instead of outsiders.

“Producing is kind of like directing. I've always played with tape recorders and I'm very tuned into the recording process. I'm totally addicted to it and I love it. As the records went on it seemed like Tom and I would tend to look to each other for input on how the records were taking shape. So, we became co-producers just because that's basically what we were doing, and that's just kind of how we work now," says Campbell. “It's just mutual respect; I trust him and he trusts me. If we both like something then usually it's on the right track. In a perfect moment we get what we wanted [on tape]. It's a mysterious and wonderful thing to do, recording music and writing it and trying to make it sound timeless. It's a challenge but it's really rewarding when it works out."

“Our love of our craft is way beyond anything any industry could touch. It's a religious thing with us. It's what we love and what we live for," says Campbell. “We don't do this just for the money. When we started out we didn't have any money and I'd still be doing it even if I didn't make a living at it because that's just what I'm born to do. If that's who you are then it makes it easy to take it that seriously. If you're someone who's out to be a rock star or make a bunch of money then you might get stuck."

In 2007, Tom Petty, Campbell and Tench decided to revisit their pre-Heartbreakers group, Mudcrutch. The group is rounded out by Randall Marsh (drums) and Tom Leadon (guitar, vocals). After a 30-plus-year delay, Mudcrutch put out their self-titled debut in April 2008 followed by a short, deliriously enjoyable California tour (see JamBase's review of their Santa Cruz gig here). Despite their many years in the business, the relaunch of this formational band carried a lively, back-to-the-garage spark that's nearly irresistible. Mudcrutch is the sound of men tapping into the things that made them pick up instruments and devote their lives to rock 'n' roll in the first place.


“Oh yeah, exactly! That was the band I quit school to play with. I quit college and faced the wrath of my dad to play with Mudcrutch," says Tench. “My dad was a formidable guy, a very smart and wonderful guy with a great command of the English language. It was like facing - not in terms of physical size or anything - Orson Welles in terms of his eloquence. Tom [Petty] helped with him not throwing me out of the house."

“When you first start playing you set up in a room with amps and guitars and say, 'Do you know 'Johnny B. Goode' or 'Honky Tonk Women'? Let's see if we can play that.' There's that joy of discovering, 'Wow, we sound like a band. We can do this. Let's write our own songs.' And Mudcrutch was our first band, so it was really fun to rediscover that germ," says Campbell, who is center stage in a rare extended psych exploration on Mudcrutch's “Crystal River," one of the standouts on the album. “I like that one a lot, and it was a one take, spontaneous recording. [The Heartbreakers] don't do that too much so I'm glad we got that one on tape to show what we can do. It's always a lucky thing when that happens."

“I love doing that [Mudcrutch] stuff. I love that band. I really, really love the sound that band makes. I was a fan of theirs before I joined, so I hope we do more," says Tench. “As far as I hear, we're going to do more."

There's a new Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album in the works, hopefully seeing the light of day next year, and the Mudcrutch experience has spilled over a bit into the new sessions.

“The Mudcrutch album was basically cut live-in-the-studio and this has the same approach. Honestly - and I know everybody says this - we're so excited about this record. It's a different record than anything we've done, a different flavor and a step up," says Campbell. “It's all live, which is really great. And Tom is so good. He's always got great characters and believable, pure music. He's a badass."


Trench, Campbell & Petty by Preston

Perhaps the only time The Heartbreakers have ever really strained onstage, at least in this writer's experience seeing them, was their legendary world tour with Bob Dylan in 1986-87, where at times it seemed like the musicians, while playing great, were in a form of sonic battle.

“Sometimes it was. Playing with Bob was really special. Sometimes it was really bad and sometimes it was transcendent. For me it was transcendent way more than it was bad, but sometimes it wasn't good," recalls Tench. “Sometimes it probably was a battle because he wanted us to be on his foot, and judging by his autobiography, he wasn't in that good a space then. We were trying hard though! There were moments with him that were... death defying. And there were moments where I don't know if we necessarily dodged death [laughs]. There was a 'Lay Lady Lay' there once or twice that was pretty funny. But there's nobody as good as Bob."

“[His songs] are not musically challenging the way you'd think. It's beautifully played, or if you hear just Bob play something on piano or guitar it's just beautiful," says Tench. “Anytime I've worked with Bob in a recording studio and he's started to show me something on piano, it doesn't matter how hard I try it always winds up with me saying, 'You're going to play piano on this one, Bob.' He's got a special way he plays piano, and he's got a spectacular feel on the guitar. It's one of those things where a line goes back to old folk players and blues players before that, and he actually carries the line down the way with a certain feel and rhythm. So the thing about playing Bob's songs is a lot of it is about the feel and for God's sake don't start playing a bunch of notes! If you're going to play a bunch of notes you better be Norman Blake, Mike Bloomfield, or Mike Campbell. You better play the right notes, and you can't be Mr. Lead Guitar unless it's the right thing. Charlie Sexton always does that. And every time I've seen Bob in the last 15 years his bands have been right."

Fame And The Future

In 2002, Petty and the band were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers by Piper Ferguson

“It's a great honor. You're put into an echelon of artists a lot of whom we looked up to and made us aspire to be musicians. To be put into the same club is quite inspiring," says Campbell. “My son had the best take on it. When we got into the Hall of Fame, he said, 'Once you're in they can't kick you out, right? You're in for life?' I said, 'Yeah, you're in for life' [laughs]. It's something you want to be part of, and it's cool that members vote on who gets in. They send you a ballot every year with ten choices and you pick the five that you think deserve to be in, and from those votes they choose the candidates. So, it's cool that it has built-in artist protection."

Still, even with the big titles not much has really changed internally for the men making this grandly embracing rock.

“We just do what we do. [Tom and I] have always played together for as far I can remember, and we've always been able to reach the same groove and compliment what each other is doing, Benmont, too. It's an instinctual thing that we do," says Campbell. “When I do sessions with other players I notice that instinctual compliment of music is missing. Maybe it's because we grew up together, but even now as we're working on this new record, he hits a chord and I do something that goes with it. We're definitely blessed."

“The thing I want us to be able to do is invite people along instead of getting up there and being showbiz-y about it," says Tench. “I saw Ray Davies [The Kinks] perform the other night and he was so charming and inviting and engaging that you were with him from the first second. And if there was a sing-along it didn't feel like, 'Oh God, they're having a sing-along.' You wanted to sing-along, and to me that's the best kind of show, where you just know you're ALL going to have a really good time tonight."

“I am a fan of the band, and if I think we don't play well or do something hokey or I feel like we don't hit a groove then I get mad, like I would if I was seeing my favorite band and they blew it," says Tench. “It's really important to me that we do it and we do it well. And I think we do most of the time."

“Ultimately, the focus should be on entertaining the audience as opposed to entertaining yourself. Truthfully, if they're entertained that entertains you more than anything you could play to satisfy yourself," says Campbell. “We take it very seriously that they've come there to sit and listen, and we want to give them what they deserve."

Check out the Super Highway Tour at tompettysuperhighwaytour.com.

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This story appears courtesy of JamBase.
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