On Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ best albums, Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises, they mined rich sources, most often the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, and made those sounds their own. Petty’s recent work has been less consistent, but on this live double album he still sounds impassioned and impressive when he lays into his early songs (such as “I Need to Know” or “American Girl,” both included here) or a well-chosen cover (the Searchers’ “Needles and Pins” and John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell”).
Petty’s salvation when his songs fail him is an undeniably great band. His recent material has its drawbacks, but he has the Heartbreakers to play it up, and Pack Up the Plantation gives them room to stretch out.
Guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench gain the most from the space, recapturing the intensity they lent to recent LPs by Lone Justice and Don Henley yet was somehow missing from much of Southern Accents. The bruising jangles with which Campbell slams shut these live versions of “Refugee” and “Rebels” are his best recorded work. The three-piece horn section fills out the mix without cluttering it; a pair of unobtrusive backup singers don’t add as much. The song selection is neither overly safe nor particularly risky: this doesn’t contain “Don’t Do Me Like That,” but there’s nothing like the wild cover of Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny” that illuminated Farm Aid either.
The three tracks from Southern Accents reprised here are far better than their studio versions, but that LP’s conceptual confusion threatens to sidetrack the band. Pack Up the Plantation is both a summation and a question mark — here’s hoping Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers use this as a platform for further growth.