Tom Petty’s live legacy gets the mega-box-set treatment
By Mike Snider
USA Today — December 20, 2009
What started out as a simple live CD project for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers evolved into a multi-disc testament to the band’s nearly 30 years on stage.
Project producer/engineer Ryan Ulyate found 3,509 songs from 169 recorded live shows over the band’s career and quickly realized that one disc would not be sufficient. He, Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell got to work pruning. “If it didn’t grab us in the first minute, then it didn’t make the short list,” says Ulyate in an LP-sized book that comes with the new Live Anthology.
What sounds like a chore actually “turned into a really good time, and I really enjoyed it,” says Petty, in a recording of responses to questions e-mailed to him.
The final 61 songs in the collection’s five discs include all the band’s changes over the years. In addition to Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, the original Heartbreakers included bass player Ron Blair and drummer Stan Lynch. Howie Epstein replaced Blair in the early ’80s after Blair tired of touring; Blair returned after Epstein’s death in 2003. Guitarist and singer Scott Thurston joined the band for its 1991 tour and has remained. Steve Ferrone took over as drummer in 2004.
“It was kind of like looking at the family photo album but everybody was in the picture,” Petty says.
The Live Anthology, released in late November, is available in several editions:
- Special edition ($100, www.tompetty.com and bestbuy.com) with five CDs (62 songs), two DVDs (one a New Year’s Eve 1978 Santa Monica concert, the other a 1994-95 documentary) and a Blu-ray Disc with all 62 songs in high-resolution audio.
- A four-CD set with 48 songs ($18.49-up) covers 1980-2007 with the band’s standards such as American Girl to covers including the Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil.
- An edition with seven audiophile-vinyl LPs ($140) of 51 songs.
- The downloadable Superhighway Tour ($24.98) with 48 tracks of MP3 or higher-resolution files. Also includes photos and band commentaries.
More from Petty’s responses:
Q: How were the songs chosen, and which ones brought back memories?
A: Well, the songs were chosen from hundreds of hours of tape that Ryan Ulyate went through, and he did the lion’s share of the listening and brought us 10 or 15 takes of each song. Mike Campbell, Ryan and I would pick the best, and the best was usually pretty obvious. So what I thought might be a chore turned into a really good time, and I really enjoyed it. It was kind of like looking at the family photo album but everybody was in the picture. We really had a good time.
I couldn’t remember all of the concerts, but I could remember the time period when I heard the tracks. The strangest things would come back to me about maybe what the weather was like getting dressed in cold dressing rooms in England. There was one particular group of concerts that I had forgotten about that we used quite a bit from the stand we did at the Forum in Los Angeles; there was a three-night stand there in 1981. We found that those shows were really, really good. … I remember being shut down after the first gig.
The fire marshals were very upset at how out of control the crowd was and wanted to cancel the next two nights. We really had to do a song and dance for the fire department.
Q: So how regularly were the band’s concerts recorded?
A: We recorded quite a bit. Not every show, of course. It was very complicated in the older days to record because, before the digital age, you had to bring in a truck and you had to have at least two two-inch machines rolling in case one ran out of tape and you had to do long sound checks and bring in a crew. So it was a lot easier when digital recording came in. But before that we always had this live album we were going to make and never did. Usually if we’re going to be in a place for more than one day, if there were multiple shows, we’d say, ‘Let’s record this because we’ll have time to get the sound really good.’ And a lot of the recordings came from live broadcasts, those were fairly common in the ’80s and the ’70s. … For whatever reason, we just hung on to anything that got recorded live, whether it was for a television show or (radio show) The King Biscui t Flower Hour or any number of things.
Q: You have the Blu-ray Disc in the set with high-resolution quality. Was there anything particular that got you interested in making the band’s music available in a higher quality?
A: Hearing (the) resolution and the sound quality on the Blu-ray Disc is really exciting. I would equate it to getting a color TV when you had only had black and white. If you are a real music fan, it’s worth getting a Blu-ray (player) and sticking this disc in there. It’s as good as being in the middle of the crowd. … I really think this is the way to go for hi-fi if you are a hi-fi enthusiast and you really want the best possible quality recordings. I think we will see a lot more of it in the future.
Q: What do you think about the prevalence of MP3s and typical downloadable digital files?
A: They are kind of the going thing right now. Unfortunately, they are not the best vehicle for sound. You are losing top and bottom, you know. You are not getting as good a picture as you would get even from the CD. And by picture, I mean a sound picture. They have this thing now called FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec, a digital music file that offers higher fidelity than MP3) that is terrific. If you are going to download, I would certainly prefer to do that for myself. I think you would enjoy it if you did it. We have that available on our Superhighway Tour (the digital online buying option for the Petty songs that began Sept. 29) for The Live Anthology. You can download in FLAC. You should try it because I think you will like it.
Q: The Superhighway Tour early release of the anthology tracks was certainly innovative. Where do you see online delivery of music going?
A: I think that is a good example of where it can go. The Superhighway thing has been very well received by our fans. I think you can spend entire evenings with it. There is so much than can be done. Who knows where it is going to go, but I think that is a good indication of what you can do.