On a warm evening at the end of June of 1981, the dimly lit stage at the Los Angeles Forum illuminated to reveal a musical band of brothers, each armed with their respective instrument for the evening of music that was ahead. With the roar of the crowd welcoming Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to the stage, Petty immediately engaged the hungry crowd with a bit of call and response, enveloped by the instrumental din of the Heartbreakers tuning up in the background. The band will be onstage for nearly five hours on this particular evening, a longer set than normal, for sure. But then again, The Live Anthology is no ordinary show for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

Beginnings:
Following the release of Runnin’ Down a Dream, the excellent Peter Bogdanovich documentary in 2007, Reprise Records (Petty’s record label) wanted to put out a live album. The initial plans were to release a standard double CD live package, but as the band dug into the idea, they realized that two CDs simply wouldn’t cut it. The blueprints for The Live Anthology were in place, and after digitizing the analog portion of the band’s archives (a process that required baking of the tapes prior to transfer), it was time to get down to business with 169 multi-track recorded concerts to choose from. Engineer Ryan Ulyate created an iTunes library of the recordings and began the process of sifting through over 3,509 live tracks with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. Once they’d identified a hefty list of highlights from 30+ years of recordings, they brought Petty into the mix to help further distill the list down to a rough cut of 80 tracks.

Of those 80 tracks, 48 ended up the final cut of the standard edition (also available on vinyl), with an additional 14 cuts available on the deluxe edition, which is the version that we’ll be talking about today.

What’s in This Thing?
Take 62 live tracks, toss in a nice book, and you’re done, right? Not even close. The book is certainly nice — loaded with tributes from the critics that have covered Petty throughout his career, including Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles music critic Robert Hilburn, etc.; an essay from Petty biographer Warren Zanes; and personal track-by-track commentary from Petty himself. Good stuff, but there’s lots more. Two DVDs are included in the set — the ultra-rare 400 Days documentary, which chronicles the recording process and tour for Wildflowers makes its first commercial appearance, bookended by a second DVD containing a classic Heartbreakers live gig recorded on New Year’s Eve 1978 in Santa Monica, capturing the band on the edge of the breakout that would come with the release of Damn the Torpedoes the following year. Filmed for television and never broadcast, the DVD is unfortunately missing the guest appearance from Del Shannon, who came out to sing “Runaway” with the Heartbreakers.

Vinyl hounds and collector junkies will love the inclusion of the newly remastered Official Live ‘Leg, originally a four track vinyl promo issued in 1976, faithfully reproduced on vinyl with full art as part of the set. While there was a European version of the LP that added a fifth track – “The Wild One, Forever” – the band/label regrettably opted for the U.S. version of the LP instead, perhaps because “The Wild One, Forever” is already present elsewhere on the digital portion of this set. Whatever the reasoning, it’s a minor point with everything that’s included here.

Additional items include a 12×12 lithograph of the The Live Anthology cover art by Shepard Fairey, a nice reproduction of a poster from the band’s legendary 1997 run at the Fillmore in San Francisco and selected backstage passes from past Heartbreakers tours.

Finally, a Blu-ray audio disc, the first of its kind, comes packaged with the deluxe edition, containing high resolution 96k 24-bit audio of all 62 tracks in both stereo and surround sound. As excellent as the regular audio tracks sound on The Live Anthology, the Blu-ray takes things one step further with the surround mixes, which are KILLER.

And that, my friends, wraps up the exhaustive list of contents for the deluxe edition of The Live Anthology. Everything about this set is so unbelievably well done — from the LP-sized box set packaging, the nicest packaging I’ve seen for a box set in years, to the audio, which is pristinely mixed on every level, and for once, not at ear-splitting levels. As the “loudness wars” rage on, The Live Anthology makes a bold statement that you don’t have to crank it up. In the midst of the constant stream of one release after another that feel like “cash-in” moves, The Live Anthology is the furthest thing from that: a true labor of love by all involved. Sequenced to feel like a dream concert with Petty and the Heartbreakers, each disc flows perfectly without a single dead spot in the set. They achieved such a perfect sequence that when the “concert” ends with “Alright For Now,” it really does feel like a perfect ending point — making the bonus fifth disc feel unnecessary.

This is to say that for those who opt to purchase the standard four-CD version of the set instead of the deluxe version, you won’t really be cheated by not having the contents of that fifth disc, although there are certainly worthy moments to be found there. If you’re buying this deluxe edition, the two DVDs, vinyl, book and Blu-ray are the real bonuses of the package that make the deluxe version a must-have.

Tom Petty and Howie Epstein - credit-Steve Ringman

Digging In:
At first glance, one thing that immediately sticks out about The Live Anthology is that it’s not a hits package, a calculated move by Petty to avoid putting out a greatest hits live collection that would be in his words, “greatest hits, played faster.” The idea of sorting the tracks chronologically also was jettisoned in favor of creating a sequence that made sense, flowing from one concert memory to the next, from 1981 to 2006 to 1983 and back again. Overdubs were against the law, and overall, Petty’s rules dictated that the collection would present a portrait of one of the hardest working bands in America, captured on the concert stage where they’ve always been represented at their very best. Petty has been down the box set road before with Playback, the very necessary 1995 set that went above and beyond with three CDs of “the hits,” and three more CDs of rare and unreleased tracks.

How do you top that?

The deluxe edition of The Live Anthology provides plenty of answers, starting with the music — 62 tracks deemed by the committee of Heartbreakers to be essential live Petty (which also means you get a nice big dose of more Benmont Tench than any one person can handle, if that’s possible), including several unreleased nuggets. Of those unreleased tracks, the pairing of the Allman Brothers-tinged “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” and “Lost Without You” back to back is an early crown jewel of the set. “Drivin’ Down to Georgia” made its debut during the Heartbreakers’ 1992 European tour for Into the Great Wide Open, with “Lost Without You” following closely behind. In fact, “Lost Without You” began as an improvised musical moment that comes creeping out of the closing chords of “Drivin’,” completely free-form and unplanned at the original time of its birth. By the time the version on this set (from Gainesville in 1993) was recorded, the song had been solidified with concrete lyrics and actual structure. “Lost Without You” is an emotional punch in the gut, and it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t seen release prior to now. Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell says that the track was played so few times that he personally had forgotten about it, to the point that he heard a bootleg recording of the track on the radio a few years ago, and didn’t know who the band was.

Tom Petty Gainesville Tape Box

For all of the obvious hits that one might feel are missing from The Live Anthology (“Listen to Her Heart,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” etc.), it’s the ones that are present that add additional sizzle to the collection — songs like “Refugee,” that are potentially Petty-by-the-numbers boring, find new life on The Live Anthology with versions that are a cut above anything you might have seen or heard personally. The title track to the still sublime Wildflowers album was a personal sweet spot for me, having never seen the rarely played gem live for myself. (That’s what I get for missing the Dogs with Wings tour.) With the current trend of full-album performances, I’d buy a ticket for a full run-through of Wildflowers in a second without even thinking twice.

Special mention also has to be made of the many cover songs that populate the track listing of The Live Anthology. Prior to the most recent tour by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, one could easily make the claim that Petty and his Heartbreakers are America’s greatest cover band, a renegade crew with the ability to tackle anything from anybody’s catalog. And they have. Some of the best moments come courtesy of city-specific covers — including a rare cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” (a relatively unrehearsed and on the fly version that comes as close to “winging it” as you’ll probably ever hear from the Heartbreakers) recorded during the previously mentioned 1997 Fillmore residency, and a great big bluesy nod to both the city of Chicago and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with the Heartbreakers version of “Born in Chicago,” recorded in 2003 for the Chicago-based television program Soundstage.

Closing Thoughts:
The Live Anthology showcases Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at the top of their game. If you’re like me and you’ve seen the band, you’ve already got your own personal concert memory, and this set collects plenty of those memories, while stimulating lots of thoughts. Listening to this set, I realize how much I really wish I would have seen the Heartbreakers with Stan Lynch behind the kit, and how much Lynch is missed in the Heartbreakers lineup. Lynch was an important cog in the band’s sound, something that Petty acknowledges frequently in the liner notes. While Lynch’s replacement Steve Ferrone is solid enough (and certainly has a respectable musical pedigree), he doesn’t bring the same feeling, vocals, or humor that Lynch brought to the drum stool every night onstage with the Heartbreakers. (Witness Petty’s intro of “Surrender,” introduced as a song that’s never been recorded, and quickly corrected by Lynch audibly as a song that’s “never been recorded well,” a possible jab at producer Jimmy Iovine.)

There are many highlights to be found on The Live Anthology featuring some of troubled Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein’s finest singing and musical moments with the band — Epstein was such a talent when he was on his game, and it’s such a shame that he couldn’t work past his personal issues.

The Live Anthology is a lovely tribute to the tenure of both Epstein and Lynch, and really captures the live prowess of the Heartbreakers as a unit better than I ever would have thought possible. Every one of the Heartbreakers, past and present, are so insanely musically gifted, that it’s hard at times to believe that they were all in the same band together, and yet for 30+ years, that’s been the magic of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, all captured so brilliantly in this box set. I’ve heard so many similar sets that completely miss the mark as either too safe, or too obscure, so I’m still a bit slackjawed at how completely dead-on this release is. You won’t purchase a better box set this year, period.