Tom Petty was a very happy man Friday night. Playing the first of six sold-out shows for Mudcrutch, the band he led in the early- and mid-’70s, Petty had a toothy grin plastered on his face for almost the entire 90-minute set. And why not? When most middle-aged men decide to get the old band back together, it’s taken as a sign of mid-life crisis; for Petty, the band is something of a larkish busman’s holiday, a chance to stroll down a musical road not traveled.
Mudcrutch was until recently a Petty career footnote or the answer to a particularly tough rock ‘n’ roll trivia question; now its self-titled debut album, recorded some 33 years after they broke up, will be released by Reprise on Tuesday.
As for the concert, it served as something of an alternate history — what would a country-rock Tom Petty sound like?
The answer: a little twangier, a little more relaxed, more inclined to jam, but recognizably Petty. Songs such as “Scare Easy” and “Orphan of the Storm” bear his imprint — they’re not all that different in melody and structure from his Heartbreakers tunes. But the band — especially the rhythm section of Randall Marsh on drums and Petty on bass — approaches them differently. The arrangements are looser (Marsh is a more amiable, behind-the-beat, swinging drummer than the Heartbreakers’ Stan Lynch or Steve Ferrone), with plenty of room for extended soloing.
Both the album and the live show hew closely to the sounds and approach of the ’70s, and Mudcrutch (which includes current Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards) shows the influence of the Grateful Dead and Flying Burrito Brothers (Tom Leadon, who shared guitar duties with Campbell, is the brother of the Burritos’ Bernie Leadon), especially when they try their hand at the electrified Bluegrass of “Shady Grove,” “June Apple” and a keening cover of Bill Monroe’s “Lover, Please Come Home.”
Their bar-band roots also shine through in raucous covers of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” — both featuring call-and-response aud participation — and in bits of business like Tench’s hitting a promotional “Easy” button on his piano after tearing off one of his many impressive solos. But while the Heartbreakers are one of the exemplary ’80s California bands, Mudcrutch has both feet planted firmly in Florida — when Campbell and Leadon engage in keening, high-on-the-neck guitar interplay during “Lover of the Bayou,” it’s easy to imagine Mudcrutch playing on bills beside Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd.
While Petty is definitely Mudcrutch’s leader, he gets to be more of a member of band than usual. He leaves most of the talking to Leadon (although he did get in a very funny story about his first time playing the Troubadour as a guest of the Knack, a cameo that ended up with drinks and amps flying and a $400 bill for damages), and gives both Leadon and Tench time in the spotlight — with Tench’s “This Is a Good Street,” a rollicking boogie, and Leadon’s “Queen of the Go-Go Girls,” a leaden country-rocker.
Petty often takes a backseat to the extended solos, although “Crystal River,” the band’s Grateful Dead-styled showcase, takes a while to get going — it’s the kind of song that gets better the longer a band plays it.
The question on everyone’s mind is, Could Mudcrutch have achieved the success of the Heartbreakers had they stuck at it? The answer is probably no. Their country rock, fine as it is, was already on the wane by the mid-’70s; the poppier elements Petty added to the Heartbreakers mix gave that band a more contemporary sound (and allowed his label to sweep him in with the then-ascendant new wave).
But it was certainly worth the wait to check out a seemingly lost part of Petty’s history, and that should put a smile on his many fans’ faces.