As a touring act, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers isn’t often mentioned in the same breath as Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, but judging by the new box set The Live Anthology, perhaps it should be. Collecting performances from shows as early as 1978 and as late as 2007, The Live Anthology highlights The Heartbreakers as interpreters of Petty’s songs, as well as of whatever covers the bandleader throws at them. The Anthology doesn’t move in chronological order—either by performance or by the date any given song was recorded—so more than anything, the set reveals how consistent the band has remained over the years. The Heartbreakers were smoking in the heart of the new-wave era, and they’re just as fiery in old age.
The Live Anthology is available in two versions: a budget-priced four-disc set and a deluxe version that costs about five times more, available exclusively at Best Buy. As painful as it is to recommend an overpriced monument to corporate synergy, the deluxe set really is a treat for hardcore Petty-heads. The fifth disc of music doesn’t sport too many can’t-miss tracks (though the cover of The Byrds’ “Ballad Of Easy Rider” is on-point, and it’s always nice to hear the You’re Gonna Get It! chestnut “No Second Thoughts”), but the rest of the deluxe Anthology packs in plenty of goodies, including a four-song vinyl LP from a stellar 1976 show, a DVD containing an impressionistic hourlong documentary about making and promoting the 1994 album Wildflowers, a second DVD containing a 1978 New Year’s Eve concert taped in a smallish Santa Monica auditorium, and a Blu-ray disc holding a reference-quality copy of every song in the set. The real prize among the extras is the DVD of the 1978 show, which provides a visual context for the rest of The Live Anthology, documenting how physical The Heartbreakers can be. (Or at the least what a cool cat Mike Campbell is as he tears off some of the most nimble guitar solos in rock.)
In Anthology’s liner notes, Petty gives a track-by-track commentary on the songs, the concerts, and the process of choosing one version of “Refugee” over another. He also writes a little about how to structure and pace an arena show, and how he strives to include quiet passages and unexpected turns between the hit singles. This set follows that philosophy, sprinkling the classics and deep cuts between covers and genuine rarities. The great lost Heartbreakers song “Surrender” (a live staple in the band’s early days, but not released in any studio version until 2000) shows up in a spirited 1983 rendition, and the nearly 14-minute version of the semi-improvised, never-before-released “Drivin’ Down To Georgia” and its coda “I’m Lost Without You” is a gift that only people who saw The Heartbreakers’ 1993 tour have previously been able to enjoy. But the cover songs will have most Petty fans salivating: a stinging take on The Zombies’ “I Want You Back Again,” a gentle run through Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil,” a soaring version of Bobby Womack’s “I’m In Love,” transporting versions of Them’s “Mystic Eyes” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” and on and on. The Heartbreakers’ covers clarify the tradition the band comes out of: a mix of British Invasion, garage, southern R&B, and West Coast folk-rock. But what’s even more remarkable is that they can roll out of a Booker T & The MGs song and straight into Petty’s “Louisiana Rain,” and make the original sound better.