CD box set review: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Live Anthology

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So the time has finally come to delve into the archives and take a look back on a 30-year career of rocking the masses with hits, misses and one-off cover songs. This is not a casual undertaking. Petty and his helper Ryan Ulyate pored over the minutiae of literally thousands of live song versions to arrive at this admittedly extra-large collection of worthy recordings. In case you are worried about sound quality, every single one was mixed from a multi-track source (meaning that it was professionally recorded and mixed to the best possible standard). Each of the 62 tracks spread across the Deluxe Edition's five CDs in this collection sound somewhere between awfully good and simply fantastic. And, thoughtfully, the two producers decided to forgo a simple, chronological format in favor of each disc flowing like a miniature concert. This really makes the package shine in terms of listenablilty. The hits are interspersed with lesser-known Petty originals and inspired covers that you probably haven't heard him perform. If you’re going to do this kind of thing -- create a live archive spanning 30 years -- this is the right way to do it. The Live Anthology is utterly fantastic for all of the care taken in its assembly.

Best of all, you can have the five-disc set for the low price of about $25. This may be the maximum value you could possibly get from your local independent CD retailer. Another, much more pricey package is available exclusively from Best Buy. Besides the CDs, it includes a 4-song vinyl EP radio recording, a couple of DVDs (one documentary and one performance movie), a Blu-Ray disc of high-definition audio versions of all the songs, and various other ephemera, including a nice 10” x 10” book. It is the loveliest package I have seen in a long time.

If I were to boil this sprawling work down to a lesser number of essentials, I’d suggest starting with the covers. My ears perked up substantially during Disc 1 when “Something in the Air” began its pop-perfect assault on my senses. Disc 2 holds an army of these treats, with “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “I Want You Back Again” and “Friend of the Devil” leading the charge. “Green Onions,” the Goldfinger Theme and “Any Way You Want It” populate Disc 3 to well-deserved cheers, and so on. An entire cover-themed playlist could be assembled from the available material, and it would be a great one. For my taste, I’d leave out the straight-up blues numbers, just because I’d rather hear the cranky, old originals of those. Then, there are numerous Petty-original rarities that make me wonder where they've been all these years. Again, an entire, fun playlist could contain these. Finally, of course, we have the hits and there are plenty of those. You know every word to every one of these songs, unless you have been living under a joyless, totalitarian regime for a few decades. Here, they breathe new life as unexpected nuances sail in on the wings of impeccable musical talent. But as I said earlier, this whole release stands on its own just fine. Let it flow! I am only talking to the tinkerers here.

The essential question for anyone thinking about investing in this is: Do I get the cheap, CD-only version, or the expensive package with the treats? I’d say the big-box exclusives add some value, but probably not enough to justify the additional $80-$100 unless you are a freak like me. If you want 62 of the best-ever, previously-unreleased Tom Petty recordings for less than half a buck each, just get the little box and be done with it.

You’ve heard a lot of Tom Petty. I don’t care who you are.  If you are reading this, his songs have entered your brain through your earholes and have lodged themselves there in one fashion or another. That’s because he writes impossibly catchy songs and he delivers them with relentless skill. He is a consummate professional songwriter and musician. He has a band of conspirators, each of whom is every bit his equal at their respective jobs. This is all a very dry and workmanlike way to do this kind of business. Yet somehow, all of this matters more than it would if we were talking about pretty much any mid-to-late 1970s-era pop musician still making music today. Springsteen? Yeah, he’s okay. Are you really buying what he is selling in his songs and performances? Okay, then. Who else? I can’t even think of anyone who is in the same league, honestly. 

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