Unless you were among the lucky audience members inside the Fillmore in January 1997, you may have not known about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ unprecedented run of 20 shows at the famed San Francisco venue. Even Adria Petty, the daughter of the late rock legend, didn’t realize the magnitude of what the band was doing at the time when she attended one of those Fillmore concerts over 25 years ago. “It was pre-internet,” she explains today. “So it was really kind of a local phenomenon at the time. It was a really special live event for them that I also got to learn a lot more than I realized and how significant it was to the band.”
The Fillmore residency saw Petty and the Heartbreakers—guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Howie Epstein, drummer Steve Ferrone and guitarist Scott Thurston—perform at their finest and most inspired. Now those performances have been captured in a new compilaton, Live at the Fillmore (1997), due out this Friday. It was put together by Campbell and producer Ryan Ulyate along with executive producers Tench, Petty’s daughters Adria and Annakim, and his widow Dana (A short film was released in conjunction with the new set).
The idea of releasing the music from the shows had been previously discussed and not necessarily pegged to the 25th anniversary for this year. “My dad had mentioned a number of times how he really wanted to get that out on a box set,” Adria, who is a filmmaker, says. “But it was one of those back-burner projects. We weren’t like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this next project must be this.’ I think both Dana and Annakim can share in that thinking: when we do a project, we feel like it’s going to be something the fans are really going to love, that it has curatorial importance, and that there’s some depth and real quality to what’s in the archives surrounding it.
“In this case, Mike [Campbell] was very strongly championing opening this vault and taking a look at this period of work. And that’s really why we did it. We did the deepest, thickest dive into that—what was important, what transpired here, what’s musically important—and put that all in one place.
As Adria recalls, putting together Live at the Fillmore took about a year “for Ryan to go through the archive with Mike and listen to the music and sort of get the blessing that this was all the best material that they had sifted through. Then at that point, Mike sort of looked at me and Ryan and went, ‘Look, you guys sequence this. This is overwhelming. (laughs) You guys figure out how to put it together in a box.’
“We started with what I call a consumer edition, like the coolest 2CD/3LP [set],” she continues. “So we worked on that first—‘What is this sort of really digestible sit-down with Tom and the band and enjoy?’ And then we looked at the whole body of what was there that was the highest quality and the best representation of the run and put together the larger set [4 CD/6LP]. That is like, ‘Let’s get lost in music. Let’s just hang out and get lost in the most incredible, neverending jam of the band playing what they love.’”
As told in journalist Joel Selvin’s liner notes for the new collection, the Fillmore residency gave Petty and the Heartbreakers room to expand their repertoire and not be bound by rigid setlists—hence the spontaneous nature of the performances (for instance, the reneditions of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “It’s Good to Be King” lasted more than 10 minutes each). In addition to the familiar and beloved Heartbreakers and Petty solo songs like “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” “Walls,” and “Even the Losers,” the band also performed a generous amount of cover material at the shows—among them J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze,” the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” Guests who appeared with the Heartbreakers onstage included the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn and blues legend John Lee Hooker.
“They had such a telepathy with each other,” Adria says about the onstage chemistry between Petty and his bandmates. “They had such a sort of next-level way of communicating musically. At the Fillmore, they’re like, ‘We can play anything we want, and there’s nobody here judging us.’ To me, one of my favorite things about this project is that it was just them being free and easy with that and really enjoying their gift and the gift of having each other and playing together.”
From the performances to the chatter between songs, the music on the set makes the listener feel they’re right inside the Fillmore witnessing the band having fun. “I play my role as like an air traffic controller and schoolmarm,” Adria explains about curating the collection, “saying like, ‘Look, would he really be fine with this? Do we really feel like it’s at the best level it can get what we’re doing? And will the fans dig it the most?’ We spent a month going, ‘Should Tom talk in between the songs or should it just be an incredible playlist of live music?’ And as we get deeper into it, it’s like, ‘No, everybody should know what it felt like to go to the Fillmore and hear him talking and spend an evening with him.’ That’s what’s really cool about this: spending the time and feeling like you can track with the emotion and the build of those shows.”
The most poignant moments as heard on Live at the Fillmore include Petty’s stripped-down performances of his classic songs “American Girl” and “I Won’t Back Down” that featured the audience singing the latter along with him. Says Adria: “I love the Kinks. I love the Rolling Stones. I love hearing these Dylan covers [such as] “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” which my dad played almost every sound check. That was always a real secret joy to be in that empty arena with them playing “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” I think the “American Girl” version and “I Won’t Back Down” on this are pretty much next level. They’re transcendent because it’s a complete unity with the crowd and you feel this energy. You can feel how happy he is being with the crowd. It’s a tender, raw and almost confessional version of each of those songs that makes them have a different meaning.”
Over time, Petty had expressed fondness about the shows; Adria recalls her father being in love with San Francisco and feeling the energy of the audience goers, some of whom were coming back night after night to the Fillmore during that residency. “He got a kick out of that. The fans would have to buy the tickets at the booth there at the Fillmore, and they would not be able to scalp them. And then when they came in, they would be offered apples like in the ’60s shows at the Fillmore. There was this memorabilia gallery, and this big piece of butcher paper where fans wrote requests that then were ripped off before the show and brought back to Dad. And so if he’d been playing a song three days ago and people wanted to hear it again or there was a song that he hadn’t played, they would write things on that paper. They were writing hilarious things on that paper as well: ‘Tom, I’m a surgeon. I want to operate on you’— crazy things, hilarious things that ended up in the newsletter they made at the time.”
Since Petty’s death five years ago, his estate has put out archival releases that included 2018’s An American Treasure, 2019’s The Best of Everything, and last year’s Finding Wildlfowers. Most recently, the song “Something Good Coming,” off of 2010’s Mojo album, was used in an ad in partnership with Everytown for Gun Safety ahead of the recent November 2022 elections. Adria says that there will be more music from the vaults in the future.
“There are whole records that were recorded in the ’80s that weren’t released,” she says. “I mean, volumes of live material. Fortunately, our dad had such high standards for what he wanted to be released. For us, it’s really a culling process of saying, ‘Is the material there? Does everybody that we need to work on it really feel like that’s what we want to work on for a year?’ There’s nothing in particular that we have on the agenda. We’ve been pretty active through the pandemic. We kept ourselves really busy with Wildflowers and rounding out stuff from the ’90s—a really rich period with the band—and figuring out how to make sure we do it at the quality level that he would be proud of and that the band is proud of.”
By her own admission, Adria never imagined herself in the role of a caretaker for her father’s music. “I had such a good relationship with my dad and he was very tough on me,” she says of preserving his legacy. “I was definitely the one that got all of the behind-the-scenes business information and the work ethic. For me, it’s an act of devotion. It’s an act of love for something that I believe in–that I believe is truly pure and wonderful and that I think should be shared. But it’s painful. Sometimes I’ll hear a song and I’ll just burst into tears. After months of hearing his voice and seeing his face. I’ll be taken back to a place in time where that song was written or where I heard it for the first time.
“But after five years, I would say I’m at a point where I just feel so much gratitude to him. I feel so much love and gratitude and warmth. I feel so honored to be a part of something that I think is truly good and will always be really truly good. And I feel a responsibility to continue to make that a safe and wonderful place for anybody that wants to visit it.
“We work in service to this music. And it’s not glamorous. It’s not a big rock and roll party. It’s about really preserving great works of art and important thinking. As folksy as my dad was, his thinking was very enlightened and very deep, inclusive, and much of what America can be when it includes everyone. He had a mark to make here in America that is a really positive one. That’s what I think about it.”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Live at the Fillmore (1997) will be out Friday.