By Brian Ives
When you’re the leader of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, anything that you do outside of that band is going to be seen as a “side-project,” whether it’s a supergroup with a Beatle and Bob Dylan, or a solo album that sells five million. And it’s certainly true if you reunite with your pre-fame band and do a tour for old time’s sake. (If you’re not aware: Mudcrutch broke up in 1975, with Tom Petty, Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell going on to form a somewhat more successful band.)
But here’s the thing: Tom Petty’s pre-Heartbreakers band, Mudcrutch, are now are a pretty formidable band themselves. Their debut New York show, last night (June 10) at Webster Hall, was a top notch display of a great group with a solid repertoire and unfinished business to take care of.
On paper, it could have been a nostalgic exercise for those who remembered Mudcrutch (who broke up in 1975). But it wasn’t, for two reasons.
Reason one: the band now has enough material to justify actually playing shows. Between their 2008 self-titled debut and their just released follow-up, Mudcrutch 2, as well as a well-chosen group of covers, they were able to play a nearly two hour show without touching Petty’s catalog. That’s no mean feat. But the debut album’s “Scare Easy” was treated as a classic, and “Orphan of the Storm,” “Shady Grove,” the Grateful Dead-like “Crystal River” and their cover of Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road” were welcomed as old friends.
On top of that, 2 is a great album. “Trailer,” the single, is a classic in the waiting (a country singer could probably have a big hit single with it), and “Hungry No More,” “I Forgive It All” and “Save Your Water” are also terrific, and even better live. The latter song, according to guitarist Tom Leadon, was one of the first that Petty ever wrote. Speaking of Leadon (younger brother of founding Eagles member Bernie Leadon, by the way), he wrote and sang a self-described “psychedelic bluegrass” song for the album (Petty noted, “I’m pretty sure it is the first psychedelic bluegrass song”), and that went over well. So did drummer Randall Marsh’s “Beautiful World,” keyboardist Benmont Tench’s “Welcome to Hell” and guitarist Mike Campbell’s “Victim of Circumstance.” The fans knew that Tom Petty wasn’t the only singer in this band, and they showed a lot of love to the other guys’ songs as well.
And that’s the second thing that made this show such a blast. The fans knew what they were in for: there weren’t drunkards yelling “Free Fallin’!” or “American Girl!” Everyone there knew what the deal was: this wasn’t Tom Petty singing his greatest hits in an intimate setting. This was a reactivation of the band Petty cut his teeth with, and he was committed to that concept. Even though Tench and Campbell are founding members of the Heartbreakers, Mudcrutch resisted the temptation to throw in, say, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” They stayed away from that band’s material. But the reason the show worked was because the fans were with them all the way. It’s hard to imagine any other artist of Petty’s stature pulling that feat off.
Midway through the already-great show, they performed Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” It’s a song that Petty has performed with the Heartbreakers; the Heartbreakers also backed Dylan when they toured together in the ’80s, and that song was in the setlist. But Petty played it with the enthusiasm of, well, a guy fronting a great barband. It also gave the audience a bona fide singalong. Everyone was into the Mudcrutch music, but “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was one song that everyone in the room had decades of history with.
After that, the show kicked even further into overdrive, when Petty introduced Roger McGuinn. They played a mini-set of songs from the Byrds’ songbook, including “Lover of the Bayou” (which Mudcrutch covered on their debut album), and Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
It’s debatable whether McGuinn joining Petty onstage would go over well with an arena full of fans on one of Petty’s usual summer tours. But at Webster Hall, it felt like a transcendent moment; it meant a lot of everyone in the room, whether they were on stage and in the audience. That synergy between the band and the fans made for a great show. But so did the performances by a band, who spent too much time apart, and are making up for lost time.