Friday, October 5, 2018

Tom Petty 21: An American Treasure

Coming in the middle of a period when it seems lots of major artists were passing along, Tom Petty’s death seemed especially shocking. He’d just finished an anniversary tour celebrating his band’s career as major label product; such a finale seemed about as likely as David Bowie dying right after releasing his final album, or Charles Schulz the morning of the last Peanuts strip.
Even though his output had slowed over recent years, consistent touring—as well as material shared on his satellite radio show, which eventually turned into its own channel—made it clear that there was a plenty of unheard material in his clubhouse, certainly since the Playback set just scratched the surface. Rather than rushing out another hits collection with the same obvious songs, his family and band members wisely waited till the following fourth quarter before unveiling An American Treasure. A true valentine for the fans, these four CDs offer about four hours’ worth of mostly unreleased material, with a handful of previously unknown songs. Even familiar deep cuts from the albums we all know are presented in different mixes, often extended past a fade or buffed of their contemporary sheen. The booklet provides commentary and detailed credits for each track, ensuring that Stan Lynch, Howie Epstein, and even overlooked Mudcrutch member Danny Roberts get their due. And there are no covers here—Tom wrote them all.
Having already mined their concert history for a previous box, the live portion of the set is lean yet choice. Highlights include stripped-down arrangements of “Even The Losers” and “I Won’t Back Down”, a beefed-up “Saving Grace” with the full band, “Insider” with Stevie Nicks 25 years after the album version and, best of all, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar introducing the band at the fabulous Forum.
The discs are thematically separated between decades, with some wavering of chronology but still linear. The ‘70s disc opens with another take of “Surrender”, which somehow got left off their first three albums, and closes with the soulful Mudcrutch track “Lost In Your Eyes” (complete with uncredited trumpet!), both of which showcase the gargle of a voice Tom had when the journey began, as heard in between. The ‘80s kicks off terrifically: the positively stellar “Keep A Little Soul” would have been the best song on Long After Dark, and still in rotation today if only. “Keeping Me Alive” and “The Apartment Song” are pretty close to the versions on Playback, but still work for the narrative. “Don’t Treat Me Like A Stranger” is rescued from the B-side of “I Won’t Back Down”, just as a full band take of “King Of The Hill” with Roger McGuinn reminds us what a great tune that is. A couple of tracks from Southern Accents are given more authentic, less robotic mixes, while “Walkin’ Through The Fire” is a missing piece of its original concept, and illuminates “My Life/Your World” (not included) somewhat.
The ‘90s were arguably the peak of his popularity, which we know does not always equal “good”. However, this segment brings out some of the overlooked elements of some less-than-perfect albums; the outtakes “Gainesville”, “I Don’t Belong”, and especially “Lonesome Dave” are very worthy of the canon, while an electric “Wake Up Time” proves he made the right choice for the version that closed Wildflowers. The final disc is left to cover this century, when radio and video weren’t promoting his music as much anymore. As much of that latter period leaned on blues for the albums, it’s nice to hear breezy tunes like “You And Me”; “Bus To Tampa Bay” and the alternate “Sins Of My Youth” would have been wonderful side trips on Hypnotic Eye. “Two Men Talking” is redeemed by the wonderful interaction between Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, the longtime sidemen who co-produced the project. The set ends with the last original song from his last original album: “Hungry No More”, live with Mudcrutch, bringing it all back to the beginning.
An American Treasure is an apt title, for it shows even us jaded types that he never stopped doing what he loved, nor did he stop honing his craft. As wonderful as the music is, we’d rather he was still around.

Tom Petty An American Treasure (2018)—4

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