It’s a conundrum that trips up even the hardiest of rock ‘n’ roll road warriors. Established artists would love to service diehard fans by playing the deepest of cuts, but they know a large portion of the audience is there to see the hits. The hits usually win out, but the rest of us long for a setlist that goes beyond the obvious and unearths gems that don’t get much, if any, live play, yet certainly deserve it.
There are fewer artists with a back catalog more imposing than Tom Petty’s. All summer long, he and the Heartbreakers traipsed the country on their 40th anniversary tour, which wraps September 25 at the Hollywood Bowl. Anyone who’s ever seen Petty live, or checked out a setlist online, knows he’s fairly consistent about digging into the archives to give fans a solid portion of unheralded selections in addition to the obvious callouts.
But what about a show focused solely on the tracks that slipped through the cracks? The near-misses, album cuts, outtakes and other recordings that fascinate the true believers? Petty is too cagey a character to ignore the casual comers who pay to see “Free Fallin,’” “Refugee” and other greatest hits. But it’s still a fun exercise to create an ultimate setlist of underplayed tracks that tell the story of the artist’s career as much as the evergreens.
“Straight Into Darkness”
1982’s Long After Dark doesn’t get as much love as some other Petty albums from the era, and this, the third single, also suffers from lack of attention. But anyone who’s ever heard it knows it’s as tough and resilient as some of his most well-known tracks. Just the kind of fiery opener we need for this dream set.
“Accused of Love”
Petty has largely abandoned 1999’s Echo, an album largely drawn from the aftermath of the divorce from his first wife. Yet there are some forgotten tracks that deserve live renditions, such as this sardonic look at two people who suddenly find their former love is a matter for the courts.
Since we’re assuming this show is going to be played in a theater and requires some restrained numbers, we begin an acoustic portion of the set with this understated yet still relatively peppy track found on 2006’s Highway Companion. Any song that finds two rhymes for Samuel Clemens is all right with me.
“Orphan of the Storm”
Petty has released two albums with Mudcrutch, his pre-stardom band that eventually morphed into the Heartbreakers. This folky ramble would go a long way to showcasing these albums, as Tom and his buddies could turn the stage briefly into an oversized back porch from which sweet music emanates.
“The Stories We Could Tell”
John Sebastian wrote this little ditty that was also recorded by the Everly Brothers and Jimmy Buffett. But Petty has performed it live (and in his Running Down a Dream documentary) and done a wonderful job with it. Here, it would continue the acoustic sweetness begun by the previous songs.
“No Second Thoughts”
Petty’s second studio album, 1978’s You’re Gonna Get It, includes this shuffling, meditative character sketch. It was an early indication he could do far more than turn out churning, Byrds-style rockers, and it fits nicely into our song sequence. Plus, Petty could easily rev up the crowd by getting them to sing along to the “Yeah, yeah, ooo, yeah, yeah” refrain.
“It’ll All Work Out”
1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) is generally regarded as one of the weaker points in Petty’s career, but this gorgeous slow one is a keeper. It would give Mike Campbell a chance to show his expertise on the relatively unknown stringed instrument koto, which creates a mesmeric effect on the studio version.
“The Best of Everything”
I’ve heard live versions of this track that closes Southern Accents from 1985 where the band does an amazing job of reproducing the backing vocals originally sung by the late, great Richard Manuel of the Band. Maybe we could even get a brass section in there, too. Petty can afford it, right?
“All the Wrong Reasons”
We close out this run of slower material with a majestic ballad found on 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open. I always felt this song had the same kind of potential to break as big as “Free Fallin’” had it been given the chance. It gets the spotlight it deserves here with a stirring, anthemic performance.
Time to rev things up again with this bluesy thumper, and maybe let Petty get a little political in the process. The title alone lets you know this is aimed at leaders gone too far. Plus, it is a chance to go deeper into one of his more recent albums (in this case, 2014’s Hypnotic Eye) that doesn’t get as much run as his older work.
“I Should Have Known It”
On 2010’s Mojo, Petty let the Heartbreakers sink their teeth into the blues, but the songwriting wasn’t quite up to his usual standard. Luckily, this Zeppelin-esque cruncher gets the balance just right, allowing the band to find their groove while still providing enough accessibility to hold onto the crowd after the big riffs get their attention.
“One More Day, One More Night”
This showstopper from Echo is the perfect way to end the main set of our hypothetical show. It builds from a quiet whimper into a torrent of sound, as a broken man cries out for help in the wilderness. Campbell’s closing solo, in which he pulls clusters of notes seemingly from thin air, will leave the people chanting for more.
“Change the Locks”
The start of the encore is always a great place to drop a cover, and Petty’s version of Lucinda Williams’ classic is just the ticket. Fans will surely remain on their feet at the end of this one. Even if Petty can’t quite out-drawl Williams at her feistiest, the Heartbreakers will make enough of a racket to compensate.
“King of the Hill”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Roger McGuinn!” While we’re dreaming here, why not have the esteemed Byrds frontman come out to revisit his excellent duet with Petty from his 1991 album Back from Rio. As a bonus, since you can actually see them singing, you’ll easily be able to tell the two voices apart.
“The Apartment Song” / “American Girl”
This wild and woolly, Buddy Holly-ish romp off 1989’s Full Moon Fever would make for a suitably disheveled way to end the evening. But if we can convince Petty to come out for a second encore, it has to be “American Girl.” We may love the nooks and crannies of his songbook, but we can’t go home without hearing this defining classic and traditional closer.