"Melinda" is the best Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers song you've never heard of. It's not because it's never been heard or heard of. It's a pretty great song and would rate among the better songs in the Heartbreakers catalog. It just so happens it's a song they've never put on a studio album. The first time I heard it was on their Soundstage performance, available on DVD and now Blu-ray. Even now there's no studio version of the song, but a live audio performance is part of the Live Archive box set released this week.
The lyrics are a quickly drawn sketch. The narrator is separated by, at the very least, distance from the object of the song. He's also grown tired of the life he knows in the place he is, and yearns to break free so he can be reunited with his love. Petty's low-key delivery accentuates the weariness of the narrator. It's a nice piece of writing, but that's not what makes the song stand out.
What brings the song to life is the phenomenal musical and interpretive skill of The Heartbreakers. Mike Campbell creates an eerie, gothic ambience with an electric mandolin played using a whammy bar and an echo effect, and Steve Ferrone's drumming shuffles with a jazz sophistication, all of which is window dressing for keyboardist Benmont Tench. The Heartbreakers are a great band but are rarely given to extended stage jams. With "Melinda," Petty tosses it over to Tench to see what he can do with it and he absolutely shines.
On the Soundstage version — which I prefer slightly to the version presented on Live Archive – there's a shot where you can see Petty, Campbell, and bassist Ron Blair staring in amazement as Tench's fingers dance across the keys. The song feels like it's straying from it's intended structure but it never sounds lost or unfocused because Tench never loses sight of where he is and magically returns the song to Petty. The solo in the two versions are similar, but noticeably different. Tench is given the freedom to explore and he does, to the audience's delight. It's a testament to his skill and the skill of the band that they are able to excite an audience with a song the crowd has probably never heard solely on the skill of their musicianship.
If you think after 30 years of listening you can't be surprised by The Heartbreakers, download this one track from Amazon for $1 and delight in the joy of being proven wrong.