''This is a trip, isn't it?'' Tom Petty rhetorically asked a smallish Malibu audience last Saturday night, pointing out that he and the musicians on stage with him were playing ''our first show together in 35 years.'' If you've guessed that Petty couldn't have been talking about the Heartbreakers based on your vague memories of seeing the halftime show before you passed out at your last Super Bowl party then you'd be right: The group making this live comeback was Mudcrutch, the Gainesville, Fla., band that existed in various permutations from 1970-75 before evolving into the Heartbreakers.
As cases of musical coitus interruptus go, three and a half decades is some pretty serious interruptus. But it's not as if Petty had to go on a Tolkien-esque quest to track down his old bandmates. Guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench haven't really left his side, being Heartbreakers as well as Mudcrutch-ers. The two ''new'' old guys in this crew, co-lead guitarist and singer Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, hadn't been in public view, but their skills weren't going to rust they'd been working as music instructors in recent years. With Saturday night's benefit show at a 500-seat hall in Malibu, the reconstituted Mudcrutch kicked off a three-week California mini-tour. But the big news is that they've made an album, too their first. Back in the day, Mudcrutch only managed to eke out a couple of unsuccessful singles before becoming a footnote in rock history. But they're an asterisk no more: Mudcrutch, the self-titled album (due in stores April 29), doesn't feel like a spontaneous one-off so much as the most classic-sounding and satisfying Tom Petty music since roughly the Full Moon Fever era.
The band members are valiantly attempting to avoid tainting this project with any of the obvious comeback terminology, however unavoidable it might be for the rest of us. ''To me,'' says Tench, ''it's not a side project or nostalgia trip or reunion. It's just a really cool band a genuine, living band. And it's been a pretty decent break from the Heartbreakers.'' Campbell admits that ''it's nice, to get to go out and play and not have to do 'Runnin' Down a Dream' and 'Refugee' every night.'' Indeed, Mudcrutch aren't doing any Heartbreakers material live but at Saturday's premiere gig, the material was so immediately accessible that nobody in the audience seemed to mind. Well, almost nobody; there was one woman who timidly blurted out a request for ''Breakdown'' a couple of times, backing down after noticing the disapproving murmuring around her.
You can forgive the poor woman for imagining that ''Breakdown'' would have been an okay fit in Mudcrutch's set. Parts of the new album sound more like the Heartbreakers than the Heartbreakers or more like their vintage sound than anything they've done in the '90s and '00s, anyway. ''Bootleg Flyer,'' in particular, starts off as almost an ''American Girl'' sound-alike, though it ends with a tandem lead guitar section that's right out of the Southern-rock lexicon. Meanwhile, the single, ''(I Don't) Scare Easy,'' is in the tradition of Petty's ''I Won't Back Down.''
But there are significant differences, too. At their public coming-out last weekend, Mudcrutch kicked the show off with no fewer than three straight country songs, and there were probably a few in the audience mostly comprising well-heeled locals and Petty diehards who'd flown in from around the country wondering if they'd paid up to $2,500 to hear Petty in full-time twang mode. The band often sounded like something that crawled out of nearby Topanga Canyon, not distant Florida, in the early '70s. Petty has an aptitude for country-rock that he's kept mostly under wraps all these years, but much of this influence comes from Leadon, who cofounded the group. (That surname sound familiar? Leadon's older brother is Bernie Leadon, who was in the Flying Burrito Brothers before going on to co-found the Eagles, and whose success in California ''was really our inspiration to go [to L.A.] and try to get a record deal,'' says Tench.)
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