In early 1997, Tom Petty was unsure what the future held for him or his band, the Heartbreakers. But he was searching for something new on the heels of his hit solo album, Wildflowers, and the enormously popular tour that followed.
“I just want to play and get away from the land of videos and records for a while,” the 46-year-old told San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin. “We want to get back to what we understand. If we went out on an arena tour right now, I don’t think we’d be real inspired. We’re musicians and we want to play. We’ve made so many records in the past five years, I think the best thing for us to do is just go out and play and it will lead us to our next place, wherever that may be.”
“Wherever” proved to be San Francisco’s iconic Fillmore Auditorium – a venue Petty had never even entered, let alone to perform. Once he did, however, he went big with a 20-show residency billed as “The Fillmore House Band,” doing intimate shows before audiences of 1,100.
The stand, which began January 10 and concluded February 7, tossed away the proverbial script; instead of running through faithful deliveries of obligatory hits, Petty and company worked up an array of covers and rarities, re-cast his biggest solo hits, and embraced a freewheeling, spontaneous musical spirit that came to define the event.
With the band rejuvenated and recognizing that something special was happening, they decided to make multi-track recordings of the last six shows. Those performances have just been released as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Live at the Fillmore, 1997.
“It was very kinetic and uncharted territory,” remembers longtime Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. “For a player used to playing to, for lack of a better word, a ‘script’ every night, it was freedom and an opportunity to just take a chance here and there, and be brave enough to be like, ‘Well, I don’t really know what I’m going to play next, but I’m going to really dig in.’ I would hope something magical happened, and it usually did because of the room and
Like Petty years before, Campbell acknowledges the pre-Fillmore routine of playing large venues, and the strong sense of obligation that came with it.
“People spent a lot of money on tickets and parking, and they were used to hearing songs they like,” he said. “We figured it was our job to give them what they want. We would sometimes throw a surprise in here and there, but we didn’t want to take advantage of the crowd, so we gave them the songs they were familiar with – most of the time.”
But those rules didn’t apply at the Fillmore. Freed from convention, the performances preserved on the new live album find the band exploring the kaleidoscope of American music – interpreting songs by J.J. Cale (“Crazy Mama”), Bill Withers (“Ain’t No Sunshine”), The Kinks (“You Really Got Me”), Chuck Berry (“Around and Around”), Booker T & the M.G.’s (“Green Onions”) and the Grateful Dead (“Friend of the Devil”), among others. More than half of the tracks on the new release are covers.
Another notable component of the 20-show run was the stream of guests; performances by blues legend John Lee Hooker and Roger McGuinn are included (though he’s not part of the album, Carl Perkins appeared early in the run).
Some of the finest guitar interplay is found on Petty’s solo hits; “It’s Good to Be King,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Free Fallin’,” and “You Wreck Me” all feature extended guitar parts, with Petty taking his share of solos. “Jammin’ Me” is played with a fury and immediacy that threatens to upstage the 1987 studio version. And “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” a track added to the band’s 1993 greatest hits package, became a guitar-centric centerpiece of the Fillmore shows. While the studio version clocked in at less than five minutes, live versions routinely pushed 10.
“It was the Fillmore, ya know?,” Campbell quips. “Before I met Tom, I was in a three-piece band that did a lot of free-form playing like that. Ben (Tench, Heartbreakers’ keyboardist) and I are really good at thinking on our feet and extending songs, and at the big concerts there wasn’t much room for that. But at the Fillmore we could do it and they embraced that approach. Tom and I had this ability to play harmonically together, to complement each other. It was just a great fit. There was just a freedom at those gigs to do whatever popped into our heads, and the other guy would fill in the blanks or join in. It’s magic when that happens.”
Underscoring the free-spirited nature, Campbell did a nightly surf-guitar set, tackling “Goldfinger” (on a Fender Jaguar with loads of reverb) before turning to the Ventures, most notably the 1964 chestnut “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue.”
“[“Slaughter”] was Tom’s idea,” Campbell recalls. “I had the idea for ‘Goldfinger’ because I loved the melody and I love surf music, so I brought that in one afternoon. We learned it, then Tom said, ‘Why don’t we do ‘Slaughter On Tenth Avenue?’ I remembered it from a Ventures record, and I like surf guitar; I like rock, I like blues, I like all kinds of stuff, but surf guitar has a space where the guitar can be the lead voice. I enjoy that quite a bit.”
Another of what Campbell calls the “oddball” selections on Live at the Fillmore, 1997 is “The Date I Had with That Ugly Old Homecoming Queen,” a song anchored by a hard-rock riff. “It’s not much of a song,” Campbell says with a laugh. “It was a riff I played at the sound check, and Tom said, ‘I’ll make something up to that.’ We put it in the show that night, and that’s what he came up with. It was all very loosey-goosey, spontaneous, and exciting.”
While recalling the energy and musical boldness of the Fillmore stand, Campbell also paused to recollect his instrument and amp choices.
“I played my late-’60s Les Paul goldtop with P-90s… I probably played the 1950 Broadcaster, a Rickenbacker 360, and a Vox Mark II we used on a Zombies song.
“I had an interesting amp setup, with a Kustom, a blond Bassman, and something else I don’t remember. It’s been a long time (laughs).”
Campbell hadn’t heard the Fillmore tapes until work began on the new release. But revisiting them provided another opportunity to marvel at Petty’s artistry – the songs, the lyrics, the remarkable power to communicate through music.
“As a guitar player, he was like John Lennon,” Campbell explains. “He was the foundation of the rhythm, and he was great at the rhythm. Occasionally, he would play licks here and there, but mostly he could lay down the rhythm and sing over it like John might do, and it just worked.
“He had a solid feel, good voicings on his chords, and he always had to get a good tone. He was just really good at what he did – very solid, tight, and creative. But mostly he had an exuberance and feel nobody else has. [When] a songwriter writes a song on the guitar and sings it to himself, they go together – the voice and the guitar create this thing – and Tom’s was really special.”
The final night of the Fillmore stand, February 7, was a blowout three-hour show with 40 songs including 10 encores and was broadcast over the radio in addition to an early version of streaming; “We’re also live on the internet… whatever that is,” Petty tells the crowd.
“Everybody should do this,” Petty said when it had ended. “It’s going to be tough to go back to the arenas. I’m not saying we won’t – I’m sure we will – but it’ll never be the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did this again next year.”
The band did indeed return to the Fillmore for seven shows in March of ’99 and replicated the experience several times in the ensuing years, including five shows at the Vic Theatre, in Chicago, in April of ’03. In May and June of ’13, they did five shows at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, followed by six at the Henry Fonda Theatre, in Hollywood.
Petty died October 2, 2017. Much has been written about his death, and life on for Campbell and the other members of the Heartbreakers. In ’18 and ’19, he toured with Fleetwood Mac. His current band, The Dirty Knobs, is a hard-rocking, ’60s-inspired outfit that in 2021 released its second album External Combustion, and last year opened a string of dates for The Who. A gig at The Hollywood Bowl on November 1, 2022, was particularly emotional, given the fabled venue where Petty and the Heartbreakers played their final gig on September 25, 2017 – a week before Petty’s death.
“I never dreamed I’d be back on that stage in any way, shape or form,” Campbell says. “But there I was, opening for The Who. The last time I saw Tom was standing onstage at that gig. It felt very sweet to be near him in that sense again. It was closure in a little way, I guess. Very spiritual.”
For the 73-year-old who first met Petty in their native Florida in 1971, revisiting tapes like those that make up Live at the Fillmore, 1997 stirs mixed emotions.
“Of course there’s melancholy because I lost my friend,” he says. “But mostly I’m just so proud and happy that we did what we did. I like revisiting the joy of it. And if there’s a tinge of missing my brother, that goes along with it. But mostly it’s just the joy of celebrating the music we made together. I’m very proud of it.”
Be sure to enter this month’s giveaway for a chance to win a Live at the Fillmore box set. Go to www.vintageguitar.com/category/giveaway.
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.