Live Review

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Fillmore (San Francisco, CA)

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on March 16, 1999

It was an early Sunday morning in late February. Tickets for Tom Petty's seven-night residency at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore were ready to go on sale, and a friend and I were queued up outside a local Ticketmaster outlet. Fourth in line. We just had to score tickets.

At least, I knew I did. I was back east when Petty and band held court at the same venue for twenty shows back in 1996. And I've had to hear how great those shows were for the last two years. Some twenty minutes and seven thousand tickets later, we came up empty. Damn.

Fortunately, said friend is connected. We made the same two shows we originally had our eyes on, one of those being the last night of the run (and which was being filmed for a forthcoming PBS special). Regardless of the evening, the concept remained static: Position the Heartbreakers as the house bar band (which, in essence, they are), injecting a healthy amount of cover material into a solid set of originals, both old and new.

It worked as magnificently as I had heard and hoped it would. Opening with Chuck Berry's "Rip It Up" and storming through "Jammin' Me" and "Runnin' Down A Dream", Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell pretty much set the tone for the night. While he doesn't particularly do anything to draw attention, Campbell is an absolute joy to watch play, a silly grin affixed to his face while leisurely ripping off biting guitar leads. And so it was all night.

We soon got the first taste from Petty's new album Echo (released April 13). It's always a challenge for an artist to debut new material to an audience, but "Swingin'" was a set highlight, a classic Petty midtempo rocker with a girl-power chorus: "She went down, swingin'." That was followed by J.J. Cale's "Call Me The Breeze", highlighted by some sweet boogie piano pounding from Benmont Tench, before rolling into the night's first singalong, "Breakdown".

After a few more fan faves, Petty left the stage whilst the band blazed through "Telstar", all Campbell reverb and Tench organ swells. When Petty strolled back out, Bo Diddley followed (he had also opened the show). A four-song Diddley romp ensued, a look of glee on Petty's face as the band tore through "Mona", "Hey Bo Diddley", "Diddy Wah Diddy" and "I Got A Woman". After his meandering opening set, Bo showed he can still rock when accompanied by a band as tightly focused as the Heartbreakers.

More covers ensued. An old-timey mini-set (with Campbell on mandolin) found utility Heartbreaker Scott Thurston applying a sweet tenor to Ralph Stanley's "Little Maggie"; Petty followed with a take on the Delmore Brothers' "Lay Down My Ol' Guitar". Little Richard's (via the Everlys) "Lucille" and Alex Chilton's "The Letter".

A brief acoustic set recast a pair of Petty faves in a sharp new context. "I Won't Back Down" was more solemn than defiant, while "Even The Losers" was actually more powerful when rendered without the full-band punch. A handful of songs later, the band left the stage after tearing through "You Wreck Me".

Back for the requisite encore, Petty and company finished with a comprehensive flurry, playing "Free Girl Now" (the first single from Echo) and the Campbell-sung, Nuggets-worthy "I Don't Wanna Fight"; that mother of all singalongs, "Free Fallin'"; and, finally, an extended jam on Them's "Gloria" that closed out each of the seven shows.