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Spins • Tom Petty: ‘Finding Wildflowers”

| May 10, 2021 | 0 Comments

Tom Petty

Finding Wildflowers

(Warner Records)

Wildflowers & All the Rest was 2020’s premier rock and roll reissue project, celebrating Tom Petty’s justly canonized 1994 solo gem Wildflowers with a range of revealing packages. A 7-LP Deluxe version did brisk business, but the 9-LP Super Deluxe collection took a leap in price that exceeded many fans’ means. The Super Deluxe’s alluring jewel was a 2-LP set of alternate and exclusive tracks dubbed Finding Wildflowers. The Petty team now offers that coveted set as a standalone release, with initial copies pressed onto limited edition gold vinyl. Key single “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Time to Move On,” and “To Find a Friend” may be absent, but the 16 tracks on Finding Wildflowers pull back the curtain on 12 of the original Wildflowersalbum’s 15 songs. The collection also offers a clutch of coveted rarities.

The occasional inclusion of casual banter draws the listener into the studio alongside Petty. After leading his band through “A Higher Place,” Petty can be heard praising the players’ performance. “Good,” he says. “Real good.” Mike Campbell’s 12-string guitar provides a jangling foundation that yields to a bristling lead, which is in turn elevated by Benmont Tench’s shimmering organ. This version is certainly more fully adorned than Petty’s formative (and truly solo) demo heard among the Deluxe set’s Home Recordings. In this way, Finding Wildflowers reveals the song’s evolutionary stride. It’s presented as a well-preserved work in progress captured during Wildflowers’ two full years of recording. Songs like “It’s Good to Be King” will, of course, remain easily recognizable despite production differences like the absence of Michael Kamen’s lush orchestration. Other songs sound markedly altered, and not necessarily inferior. Campbell’s languid and liquid slide guitar solo drips alongside Elvis Presley bassist Jerry Scheff and Tench’s shimmering organ during “Hard on Me” while Petty’s relaxed and assured vocal settles comfortably into Steve Ferrone’s mid-tempo groove. The only song to seem truly subpar when compared to its finished counterpart is “Wake Up Time,” which is much more blunt and heavy-handed in its early shape than the evocative Wildflowers version.

Petty’s growling rhythm guitar sparks “Cabin Down Below,” an amorous rave-up with drums by founding Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch in one of his final recordings with the band. Bassist Howie Epstein joins the propulsion with effortless groove and bedrock precision. Later, an acoustic version with successor Steve Ferrone is included for comparison. Tench’s warm acoustic piano chords and sparkling solos are highlights of an uptempo “Crawling Back to You,” sparring with Campbell’s lead guitar in another arrangement featuring Lynch. The song is cast as a Jackson Browne-styled rocker. The final album version with Ferrone’s tempo and feel suits the winsome song best, but there’s no denying the emotional pull during the intimate breakdown and final verse of the Finding Wildflowerstake.

The classic Heartbreakers’ lineup thrills during a live-on-the-floor take of “Honey Bee.” Campbell’s solos sting, and Petty’s own feral licks leap from the speakers as the pair trade leads. “This is a little number we used to do down in Mississippi,” drawls Petty before the band launches a spirited acoustic version of “You Wreck Me.” Campbell delivers a chiming 12-string guitar solo, markedly different than the wailing string bends on the hard-charging album version.

“House in the Woods” includes a jazzy, Grateful Dead-inspired excursion that was excised from Wildflowers, replete with Ferrone’s swinging beat and Campbell’s nimble fills. Title cut “Wildflowers” begins here with magic words for any Beatlemaniac, “Count it off, Ringo.” “Only a Broken Heart” is present in a version that offers a fragile and emotionally bare vocal performance by Petty.

New to this set is “Driving Down to Georgia,” a restless southern rocker, road story, and Heartbreakers concert staple from the early ‘90s. It’s a fitting companion to “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Like the characters in many of Petty’s best lyrics, this one is down but not out. “Driving in an old car made in the USA. Hear that engine knocking. We’ve both seen better days,” Petty sings. A studio version of “Girl on LSD” remains loopy fun but doesn’t have the same off-the-cuff, comic delivery heard on the live version from last year’s Deluxe set. “I like that song,” says Ferrone following the take. “You Saw Me Coming” is another previously unreleased track, a not-quite-perfected but compelling and mesmerizing remnant from Wildflowers’ earliest days when even Petty himself probably thought he was making a Heartbreakers album.

Track-by-track notes from Tench, producer Rick Rubin, and Petty’s key studio collaborator Ryan Ulyate complete the picture of Finding Wildflowers as a treasure trove for fans of an American treasure and his finest work. (tompetty.com)

– Jeff Elbel

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Category: Featured, Spins, Weekly

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