Petty comes alive with ‘Pack Up the Plantation’
By Bill DeYoung
Gainesville Sun — November 22, 1985
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers enter the realm of the big arena boys — the likes of Journey, REO Speedwagon and Aerosmith — with the release next week of “Pack Up the Plantation,” their first-ever live album. It’s a deluxe, double-disc package, de riguer for stadium rockers during the Christmas season, but any and all comparisons to the Journeys of the world end there. Although it’s by no means the definitive Heartbreakers album, “Pack Up the Plantation” is not gratuitous, nor is it boring. If anything, it’s a tease.
The bulk of the album was recorded this past August at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, and is the ostensible soundtrack for the soon-to-be-released “Pack Up the Plantation” concert film. The Wiltern material — complete with the horn section and female backing singers that worked the entire “Southern Accents” tour — is solid and shows the band to be in top form and the audience getting pretty steamed up. However, much of Petty’s onstage vivacity is purely visual and, in the case of “Breakdown” on this album, the listener wonders what’s going on, what’s the crowd getting so worked up over? Petty is one of this country’s most animated live performers (un a reasonable fashion, leaving out the rock histrionic of David Lee Roth and people of that ilk) and the “Breakdown” segment of his concerts has long been legend. He literally has one on stage (it’s an emotional song) and pulls some of his greatest faces. Needless to say, on “Pack Up the Plantation” it has to work as an audio piece, and it doesn’t. The audience actually sings most of the song for him. It must be one of those “wait for the movie” situations.
That’s really the only problem with this album — it’s rock ‘n’ roll that works on a much higher level with visuals, with participation.
Many of the Heartbreakers’ best live songs are finally preserved on wax — including the solo/ensemble version of “The Waiting,” a rollicking “Anerican Girl,” “Refugee,” “I Need To Know,” and a surprise rendition of “Rockin’ Around (With You),” from the first studio album.
“Rockin’ Around” was recorded on the “Long After Dark” tour, almost three years ago, and it is indicative of this album’s schizophrenic nature: alongside the Wiltern cuts, there are two (“Insider” and “Needles & Pins,” with Stevie Nicks) from 1981, two from ’82 (the aforementioned “Rockin'” and a version of “Stories We Can Tell” with Bobby Valentino from the Fabulous Poodles on violin) and two from even earlier. They are all edited together into a seamless whole, and while the passing Petty fan might not know that Stevie Nicks didn’t appear on the “Southern Accents” tour, the version of “Don’t Bring Me Down” was recorded in 1979 in a Boston nightclub, and the relatively small burst of applause sounds obviously out of phase next to the thunderous arena round that leads into “You Got Lucky.”
However, the bottom line is that this visceral band has been one terrific live act for years, and now there’s legitimate, if not perfect, proof. “So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star,” “Rebels,” “American Girl” and “It Ain’t Nothin To Me” are powerful rock indeed, and in some cases put their studio counterparts to shame. Surprisingly, “You Got Lucky” is one of the best tracks on this album — it works much more dramatically than it did on “Long After Dark.”
“It Ain’t Nothing To Me,” the most difficult track from “Southern Accents,” likewise shapes up a solid live number (and pianist Benmont Tench repeats his incredible Carmen Cavallero New Orleans piano solo). Petty’s vocals on the song “Southern Accents” are all butter and honey, and he rips through an anything-but-tame “Shout.”
A Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers concert is a real treat. With them Gainesville, Florida has produced some of the most honest, hardworking grassroots rockets operating in America today. Although the full effect of the show doesn’t come through on “Pack Up the Plantation,” it is nevertheless an enjoyable and worthwhile listen.
It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.