Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from: mudcrutchmusic.com
Mudcrutch :: 04.14.08 :: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium :: Santa Cruz, CA
Expectations are a bitch. No matter how much good will many fans claim to have towards an artist it's often hard to let go of wanting a taste of the familiar, a hit of the thing that made you love them in the first place. Based on the grumbling amongst a fair chunk of the audience and not a few critics (for example, venerable concert warhorse Jim Harrington's take), the reunion of Tom Petty's early '70s Gainesville, FL band, Mudcrutch, is likely to meet a mixed response. But, for those expecting Heartbreakers Mach 2, Petty (who plays bass here) offered this buoyant mission statement at the start, "You're in the right place if you came looking for some good ol' hippie music."
Looking like they'd shopped a Robbie Robertson garage sale, Mudcrutch began with folk chestnut "Shady Grove," handled like Fairport Convention or the early Byrds – traditional folk music lingered over by pot smoking boys with rock 'n' roll souls. While the music wasn't overly complicated at times, there was no denying their naked delight in playing it. More than once Petty openly stated they were having a blast together, both in the studio and now on this two-week California tour that began two nights earlier at a benefit concert in Malibu for The Midnight Mission.
"I just can't tell you how fun this is," said Petty. "So sweet." Appreciating their pleasure was the key to fully engaging this music. Having seen Petty perform close to a dozen times over three decades I can confidently say I've never seen the man or Heartbreakers Benmont Tench (keyboards) and Mike Campbell (guitar) have a better time. After only a couple songs, you picked up the sense that these guys were rediscovering what made them want to be in a band in the first place, revisiting treasured inspirations and playing music that made them happy, regardless of how it might be received.
Rounding out the band are original Mudcrutchers Tom Leadon (guitar) and Randall Marsh (drums), together with Petty, Campbell and Tench for the first time in 35 years. Built on Marsh's so-dead-solid-you-could-miss-it, Sun Studio style backbeat, the group is loose as a goose but comprised of such utter pros that they can wing it this way. Leadon is a respected studio musician that may have lacked Campbell's explosive impact but wanted for nothing each time he took a solo. This is very meat 'n' taters stuff comprised of '50s country and rock, '60s folk and psychedelia and tons of smiling bar band appeal, so flash isn't what it's about at all. With Leadon another strong vocalist in a '70s AM radio fashion and Tench taking lead on the terrifically catchy "This Is A Good Street" (sample line: "No more tears will be wept here") this felt like more of a gang than the Heartbreakers, where Petty openly acknowledges "It's Good To Be King."
As the copious ganja clouds made clear, this is music for folks who've sorted their stash on a gatefold record sleeve. Maybe the aging surfers and bikers in attendance speak more to Petty's general demographics but it still felt delightfully counterculture inside the Civic. With a strict "No Heartbreakers" material policy, one had only to judge Mudcrutch on the basis of what they put out there, and as a twangy, softly trippy soundtrack to dancing and getting stoned as a 1st Century Christian they're hard to beat. The contact high was strong from both the music and lingering atmosphere and by the third number, a cover of Dave Dudley's "Six Days On The Road" (probably picked up from Gram Parsons' Grievous Angels), they were drawing water from early Beatles and Chuck Berry, roadhouse rough and anxious to tickle our fancies. Hard.
Mudcrutch :: 04.14 :: Santa Cruz by Dennis Callahan
Petty is always dedicated to giving audiences a good time but there's more pomp in the Heartbreakers, more familiar bases they need to hit in order to achieve that end with their fans, and a much larger scale. Seeing Petty and company in a venue the size of a healthy high school auditorium was a blast and a half. Instead of a dot of fringed suede and graying blond hair in the distance at an amphitheatre you could shuffle close enough to see his smile lines.
With Mudcrutch's self-titled debut not hitting stores until April 29 you had to just let the music wash over you. Ticket buyers were sent a download link for six cuts as a taster, and it's solid stuff in the studio but live every track sparkled a little more. Fed by the energy of a new band taking their first steps together in front of a crowd and the not tiny energy they got back, the songs are already starting to open up. "Orphan of the Storm" took on a Merle Haggard feel, while "Scare Easy" found Petty spitting the lyrics like Christian-era Dylan, at once tough and bone weary on jewel lines like "I'm a loser at the top of my game." Dylan resurfaced on two primo covers, "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)" and main set closer "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35." If there was a happier spot on the planet during "Rainy Day" I'd be shocked. Belting out "Everybody must get stoned" and passing numbers to strangers, there was the kind of camaraderie one imagines existed in the '60s underground scene. Even if only a facsimile of the real thing, it felt terrific to see so many folk's fences fall for a moment.
If you got over expecting "American Girl" or "Refugee" and just listened there was tons to enjoy. Laidback but never lazy, Mudcrutch explores the spaces that once lit up The Byrds, Goose Creek Symphony and the Flying Burrito Brothers – southern flavored rock unafraid of Nashville or LSD. Throughout the night Campbell's solos were needle sharp, incisive models of compact excellence that got in, got the job done and then jetted quickly. Even when they jammed, extending the tails of a piece, it was still nicely controlled with one marvelous exception. Introduced by Petty as one of his favorites on the forthcoming album, "Crystal River" is a sighing electric moan in the vein of early Traffic or Procol Harum. The first of several improvisational flights from Campbell was a human cry – a little torn, reaching towards things just out of reach - and each time at bat only found him digging in a little deeper, often conversing through his instrument with Tench's suitably crystalline B-3. When Leadon finally found his footing here his guitar cut the air like a glass harmonica – sharp, clean and pure as a mountain spring. For as straightforward as much of their emerging catalog is, "Crystal River" suggests there's also a worthwhile psych-rock bent they might explore.
Mudcrutch :: 04.14 :: Santa Cruz by Dennis Callahan
From the original Mudcrutch catalog we got Leadon's "Queen of the Go Go Girls," which he explained came from their first gig playing at a topless bar. "But we never noticed them much," chuckled Leadon. Even more vintage was old time fiddle tune "June Apple," which Petty said "probably came over on a boat from Scotland." Newer tunes "Oh Maria" (a Lowell George-esque tale of a roadhouse waitress and a guy who drives marijuana up from Mexico) and "The Wrong Thing To Do" have that easy Petty swing. The man can't help penning populist ditties, even if a few here might be better suited to another decade. "Topanga Cowgirl" could be a lost Monkees hit with its non-ironic '60s bounce and visions of being on the Pacific Ocean caught "between the rocks and the sky."
The encore of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and Jerry Lee Lewis' "High School Confidential" only reinforced the 12 bar blues, garage band vibe. Without paying too much mind to what makes sense and going with what feels right and true and just plain fun, they've put together a truly different band than Petty and the Heartbreakers. For anyone with a longhaired soul, Mudcrutch might prove the more satisfying group in many ways. It's apples and oranges. They're both fruits but only one of them awaits you at the top of the stairs at The Fillmore.
04.14.08 :: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium :: Santa Cruz, CA
Shady Groove, Orphan of the Storm, Six Days on the Road, Scare Easy, Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine), This Is A Good Street, Lover of the Bayou, Queen of the Go Go Girls, Oh Maria, Topanga Cowgirl, The Wrong Thing to Do, Bootleg Flyer, June Apple, House of Stone, Love Please Come Home, Crystal River, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
Encore: Summertime Blues, High School Confidential
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