Tom Petty’s Daughter, Adria Petty, and Benmont Tench Remember Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers ‘Live at the Fillmore’

The walls don’t talk in the Fillmore, they sing, they wail, they quiver, and explode into some iconic pairing of a guitar riff, bass line, and drum beat. For decades, the famed San Francisco venue has been host to history, becoming a home to rock’s most memorable moments and moment makers.

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It was a perfect storm that landed Tom Petty in the hallowed halls of the Fillmore and in the position to play his legendary month-long, 20-date sold-out residency with the Heartbreakers in 1997. The band was between albums, having ridden in on the high of their last record, Wildflowers, and they were itching to play, not just the Heartbreakers’ hits, but whatever the hell they wanted.

“I just want to play and get away from the land of videos and records for a while,” Petty told the San Francisco Chronicle, laying out his plan before the shows. “We want to get back to what we understand. If we went out on an arena tour right now, I don’t think we’d be real inspired. We’re musicians and we want to play. We’ve made so many records in the past five years, I think the best thing for us to do is just go out and play and it will lead us to our next place, wherever that may be.”

No one really knew how successful the free-for-all, experimental format Petty was proposing would be, but when the initial shows sold out instantly, 10 dates became 20, and, for a month, the Fillmore became the band’s home.

Not one show during that stint was repeated, but each gig guaranteed the Heartbreakers were out of their element, exactly where they were supposed to be. They were able to unplug and strip back in order to better serve the songs they played. “The Heartbreakers could draw from a deep well of American music and British music and this was a chance to do that,” longtime Heartbreaker, Benmont Tench, told American Songwriter of the Fillmore residency.

Their sets consisted of tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, The Kinks, Bill Withers, Chuck Berry, Booker T. & the M.G.s, and saw special performances from an array of legends, including The Byrds’ frontman Roger McGuinn and blues icon John Lee Hooker. They peppered in Heartbreakers’ songs here and there, but in performing more covers than originals and in paying tribute to the music that shaped their own, the band found their way forward by tracing their steps back to the sounds that sparked their first love.

“It was a chance to be who we were when we weren’t playing a gig,” Tench explains. “If we were at a rehearsal, this is the stuff we would play for fun to avoid rehearsing.” The Fillmore shows were intimate, making the thousand-capacity room feel even more personal as the band gave fans a look at the Heartbreakers behind-the-scenes, out from behind the guise of rock stardom.

“It was beautiful,” Tench says, explaining the magic, “If we play whatever the heck we want and we play it well … just because it isn’t ‘Runnin’ Down a Dream’ or ‘Refugee’ or ‘Free Fallin’, doesn’t mean that they’re gonna run for the exits.”

Quite the opposite happened, actually. Tench described seeing familiar faces night after night, watching the front row become family. Petty’s daughter, Adria, recalls a “sense of community” in the room.

“Everybody was very excited to see the band in a small space and to be able to hang out with each other,” she explains to American Songwriter. “The whole atmosphere for fans was very inclusive.”

Adria described the unique experience that the shows brought, not only for fans but for her father. “It was very spontaneous,” she says, “My dad was a taskmaster in terms of rehearsing the band and just really knowing how to get up and entertain people.” But at the Fillmore, he was more laid back, trying something different.

She explains of that moment in time, “He was going through a divorce, he was changing his life dramatically, he was changing his band dramatically, and I think he’d been through a lot giving birth to Wildflowers.

“I think he just took the pressure off of himself to play Tom Petty,” she continues. “And just allowed himself to be pretty close to home and be in one place and enjoy playing music and connect with his fans in a really deep and meaningful way. It was, for him, I think a really liberating time. He felt super happy … and at ease and sort of like he had entered this new phase of his life.”

The residency at the Fillmore was legendary, yes, in the way it packed the house every night, but also in the way it restored the band. Those performances offered a respite from fame and a return to what made the Heartbreakers a band in the first place. After the residency wrapped, those nights of spontaneity, whim, and wonder joined the echo in the Fillmore’s walls and can now be heard on Live at the Fillmore (1997).

Petty’s estate, alongside producer Ryan Ulyate and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, were diligent in recapturing the experience of the residency for the live release. Featuring some of the high points of the 20-date run, Live at the Fillmore (1997) contains “hours of beautiful music you can bathe in,” Adria describes.

“You attend a show when you listen to this record and it feels warm,” she says, detailing her father’s banter in between songs and the connection that can not only be heard but felt, between musician and fan. “It feels like you’re a part of that community. You really feel close to him.”

Photo credit: Martyn Atkins / Sacks & Co.

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