Music review: Tom Petty resurrects Mudcrutch
By Joel Selvin
The San Francisco Chronicle - April 18, 2008
Tom Petty clearly loved every minute onstage with Mudcrutch Wednesday in the first of two sold-out shows at the Fillmore Auditorium. "Having the band back together is beyond our wildest dreams," he told the crowd. "We've made a new album and we're going to play every track on the album."
Few of his fans even knew that Tom Petty and fellow Heartbreakers first played together in a band called Mudcrutch. The band spent years in their hometown Gainesville, Fla., finally moving to Los Angeles, where the group broke up in 1975 after releasing one single.
Petty, guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench went on to form Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, record about 18 best-selling albums and become world famous. Thirty-three years after Mudcrutch broke up, Petty called drummer Randall Marsh and guitarist Tom Leadon, who was the first Mudcrutch musician to move to California in 1972, following the footsteps of his older brother, Bernie Leadon, a founding member of the Eagles.
With an album to be released next week, the re-formed Mudcrutch played a few small theaters around California, including the two-night stand at the Fillmore. Ticket buyers were given a free download of six of the forthcoming album's songs, but there would be no Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers hits in the set list - this was strictly a Mudcrutch gig.
Channeling 1970s L.A.
Opening with the bluegrass standard "Shady Grove," Petty on bass, Leadon and Petty sharing lead vocals, Mudcrutch drew a lot of the band's sound from the '70s Los Angeles country rock of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco - groups that undoubtedly influenced the band's decision to come to California in the first place. Mudcrutch was probably a California band before it left Florida.
Drummer Marsh had the band's name stenciled across his bass drumhead, and everybody was rigged up with vintage Fender gear. The new Mudcrutch songs ranged from the wheezy, folky sound of "Orphan of the Storm" to the elegiac "Crystal River," a wistful, meandering piece, set in Gainesville, that the band used as a platform for some psychedelic excursions. By the end of the number, Petty had the entire audience singing along to a song it had never heard before.
Petty sang most of the songs, but Leadon shared some vocals and sang his "Queen of the Go Go Girls," another song with Gainesville roots. Keyboardist Tench sang "This Is a Good Street." Campbell and Leadon played a lot of twin guitar parts, including an instrumental feature, "June Apple."
Petty wrote songs for Mudcrutch that would never play with his other band, although Stones-y "The Wrong Thing to Do" and the first new Mudcrutch single, "Scare Easy" ("I'm a loser at the top of my game," Petty sings), contained trace elements of Heartbreakers formulas.
He dropped in a few agreeable covers - a couple of Dylan tunes, including "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" (which brought out a hundred joints), Dave Dudley's truck-driving "Six Days on the Road" (standard fare for L.A. country-rockers such as the Flying Burrito Brothers), and an encore of '50s rock 'n' roll songs: Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," Little Richard's "Rip It Up" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "High School Confidential." Campbell brought out the mandolin for the Bill Monroe bluegrass tune "Love Please Come Home," and the band gave a kind of Dylanized rock polish to the Byrds' "Lover of the Bayou," a track Mudcrutch recorded for the new album.
Nobody was having a better time than the musicians on the bandstand. Petty recalled living across the park from Leadon, learning to play guitar together as teens and belonging to the same bands; the Sundowners, the Epics, Mudcrutch. Leadon looked like a man in a dream. "He didn't have to do this, obviously," he told the crowd. "It just tells you something about Tom Petty."
Respect for the past
It does indeed. Petty handled the 2002 death of longtime Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein by reaching back 20 years for the band's original bass player, Ron Blair. During the fabled 1997 monthlong run at the Fillmore, when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played more than 20 shows, the band easily re-created the ambience of their youth as bar band. Over the years, Petty, no matter how imaginative and finely detailed his work has been, never moved far beyond "Hi-Heeled Sneakers" or any of the other rock 'n' roll/R&B classics he and the band routinely trotted out during the Fillmore run.
Petty and his musical collaborators have stayed fresh all these years, in part, just because they kept so close to their roots, the source of their original bliss. In this unlikely reunion, these men have recaptured something of their own pasts and stitched it into the fabric of their music.