Digging into Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Fillmore, 1997

did you know they were referred to as the fillmore house band

Digging into Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Fillmore, 1997

In 1997, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the Fillmore in San Francisco for 20 nights. It was originally scheduled for 10 nights, because, allegedly, no one was sure how they’d sell. That is legit hilarious. It was the early days of the internet, so unless you were either a huge fan or lived in the Bay Area, chances are you didn’t know that this was happening. I was living in Seattle, and definitely availed myself of my proximity to the Bay Area for music events, although, to be honest, not nearly enough. My first San Francisco show was Pearl Jam at the Polo Grounds in 1995, when Eddie got sick and Neil had to fill in and we got all of Mirror Ball live. My first show at the Fillmore was Chris Cornell’s first solo show ever, which wasn’t until 1999.

When the Petty camp announced that they’d be releasing an official live recording from that stand, once I’d gotten myself an assignment to write about it -- you can read it on Pitchfork -- my next question was, why did I not go to any of these shows? Yes, sure, it’s a tiny room, but it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Fillmore. I was/am lucky to have a close friend who lives in the Bay Area, so I really didn’t understand how on earth I missed these shows, except for the fact that one cannot possibly go to everything. I texted Teresa, beginning with “How many of the Tom Petty at the Fillmore shows did you go to?” (No, not “Did you go?”)

NB: I went and dug out my datebook for 1997 and I will tell you that the reason I did not go to these shows was because it was a period of time where I was trying to prove my “commitment” to the tech startup I was working for. I know we have learned a lot over the past few years, and this newsletter is not about this, but kids! Do not ever do this, unless what you are working at is legit your life’s work. I have a lot of regret over concerts I did not go to because of a fucking job.

I have many motivations when I decide I want to do an album review. In this case, it was, of course, the entirety of -- this band at that venue at this particular moment in their history, and yes I could just buy the record and listen to it, but the excuse of the assignment is my carte blanche to go nuts on the research. The Heartbreakers’ Fillmore stand is the kind of thing that could never happen now, and even if it could, it would be completely different, mostly because it would be somehow dumbed down, flattened, smoothed out, to accommodate the random people who would decide that they needed to be at the show to take some selfies with the band behind them and ‘prove’ their cred. (I hate this, I hate all of this.) It wasn’t a national news story until it happened. There were two live radio broadcasts, but those weren’t even planned until the thing got rolling. I didn’t try to go dig and see if someone was writing up the setlists for the Tom Petty usenet group or mailing list every night because that is a rabbit hole I would have gotten lost in, and this was a small and low-paying assignment, relatively speaking, but I did go find the fan who’d collected all the Petty live stuff he could and put it online, and they had 12 of the 20 shows, all of which I downloaded, and then put the setlists into a spreadsheet.

(Do not judge me for the stupid “X cover” notes, those are not my notes, but rather taken from whoever originally uploaded the show to a tracker and relied on Wikipedia to tell them who covered a song.)

This activity was more to help calm my brain/wrap my head around the whole thing than anything I actually needed, because I knew that P4K’s fact-checking was probably not going to accept “I downloaded 12 illegally-recorded shows and put the setlists into Google Sheets for cross-referencing purposes, I know enough about how this stuff works to do the due diligence so I feel that this information is accurate” (although a version of that did actually get through fact-check, which you’ll see in the review). I also had a phone call with my San Francisco pals to talk about their memories of the event, again, just for background, because it was easily available to me. Except for one pal:

(It was 1997, it was San Francisco, any X you could buy there was probably still worth doing, it’s the leaving early part that I am most irked at, although younger me was adamant that doing drugs during concerts was a Very Bad Thing!)

Some of the original unedited notes that didn’t make it into the review, aka the notebook dump:

tom petty singing satisfaction in 1997 should be, you know, embarrassing, or at least perfunctory, its not ironic or louche but i believe him and i feel it and there’s a version of me in a parallel universe that is dancing to this song at the back of the Fillmore, under the chandeliers, waving at the ghosts of Janis and Jerry and Jimi. You can’t ask for more from a live record than that.

it doesn’t feel like a record from the 90s. it feels like a performance from the 70s and I dont think the heartbreakers or TP would disagree or be offended by that comparison. An example is their version of “Lucille,” which TP introduces as “Little Richard by way of the Everly Brothers.” The invocation of the latter is in the smooth vocal harmonies, but also, the arrangement, which owes more to, say, paul butterfield blues band than any extant white boy interpretation of Little Richard’s than any extant white boy interpretation of the Magnificent One.

Benmont Tench erupts into a truly Professor Longhair-ian piano solo in the middle of “Call Me The Breeze,” which doubles down on the southern roots of the Lynyrd Skynrd track in a way they would not have disapproved of, at all. But it is, again, a uniquely Heartbreaker’d flavored rendition, because when you have an interpreter like Benmont Tench “and his untamed piano,” as TP says when they’re done, you take advantage of it if you’re smart.

time is on my side, otoh, is a straight-up rolling stones cosplay, delivered with zero irony and with great affection.

honestly there’s nothing quite like the crowd recognition of a dead song in san francisco, at the fillmore. it’s warm and uniting, like the hug you get from a old friend you haven’t seen in a long time. you can make a giant speech about how glad you are to be at the fillmore or you can just play a dead song. but if you do that, you can’t fuck it up.

Another amazing thing about these shows was the version of “Gloria” that became a regular in the encore, which, being “Gloria,” took on a life of its own. My original plan for this newsletter was to write about each version that I have a recording of, but this is already 1) late 2) long so it will be a separate edition of this!


If I forget to update this, you can always look here.

  • I wrote about Patti’s new book for Vulture. It’s less a review than it is an examination of why she’s so good at digital life, and how it’s both surprising and not so surprising, if you examine her relationship with her audience through the years.