Count among Tom Petty’s many talents the ability to trade his superstar role for that of being just another member of the band.
By Scott McLennan
Tom Petty is having a pretty good run with not being TOM PETTY. One of rock ’n’ roll’s premier talents and recognizable figures is currently out on the road hitting small theaters and clubs, playing bass in a band with longtime friends.
Count among Petty’s many talents the ability to trade his superstar role for that of being just another member of the band. The loose, give-it-a-shot vibe to the Mudcrutch show Wednesday at the House of Blues in Boston felt genuine, for Petty and the other musicians in the group, and not a mannered ego trip.
The last time Petty was in town he played on the other side of Lansdowne Street, leading his main band, the Heartbreakers, through hit after hit at Fenway Park. One of the marvels of that 2014 show was seeing how many in the audience — an impressively broad mix of teens, millennials, and grays — knew every word to each song. Many in the crowd hadn’t even been born when Petty and the Heartbreakers put out their debut album in 1976. But it was clear how finely Petty’s music is woven into our cultural fabric.
With Mudcrutch, Petty gives us a chance to fall in love with his musicianship, his love of what he does. It doesn’t matter if you are listening to one of Mudcrutch’s albums or seeing the band live — there are no pop chestnuts or nostalgic excursions here to to influence the experience. Mudcrutch is a band selling its wares on the fly, not much differently than the way The Shelters had to in the opening slot of Wednesday’s show.
In Petty mythology, Mudcrutch is the god head from which the Heartbreakers sprung. Petty and guitarist Tom Leadon formed the band in 1970, and it eventually included future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench.
In 2008, Petty, Campbell, and Tench reunited with Leadon and Mudcrutch drummer Randall Marsh to make a record and to play a few shows in California. This year, with little fanfare, news bubbled up that a Mudcrutch 2 record was arriving in May, to be followed up by the band’s first coast-coast tour.
Petty has been around far too long to be completely spontaneous, but the determined effort at undersell is as close as Mudcrutch can come to creating a clean slate for itself. The band isn’t a vehicle dedicated to the past or a campy put on by rock stars pretending that they are teenagers again playing in a bar. Rather, these are veteran musicians applying all that they have learned to their roots.
There’s no doubt that Petty’s involvement jacks up the interest level in Mudcrutch, and he doesn’t turn off his front man’s magnetism. Yet the bottom line is that Petty is a member of the Mudcrutch gang and not the leader of a disciplined ensemble, as is the case with the Heartbreakers.
In fact, Leadon handled a good chunk of the vocal duties. And Tench belted out a couple of great boogie-woogie rockers. Even the usually stoic Campbell took a lead vocal turn on his rollicking “Victim of Circumstance.”
The two-hour performance at the House of Blues wended its way through the country music and primal rock influences that shaped these musicians and that inspired them to create wildly successful original music of their own.
The material Mudcrutch has recorded is a grab bag of songs that in some cases date back to the band’s early days, including the Dylan-shaded, Southern-accented “Save Your Water,” reportedly the first original tune that Petty brought to Mudcrutch. It was a high point on Wednesday’s show.
Mudcrutch’s tight, punchy delivery — a skill learned as teens playing tunes such as Dave Dudley’s diesel boogie “Six Days on the Road,” dusted off once more for this tour — is shaping the newly written songs for the group. “Dreams of Flying,” for instance, is full of the bruised hope Petty pours into Heartbreakers songs, yet that feeling, filtered through Mudcrutch, sounds rougher, less varnished.
Even though “Trailer,” the lead single from 2 , is an old Heartbreakers B-side given new life, Mudcrutch effectively escaped the Heartbreakers’ shadow. And, as if to highlight its prequel role in the Petty saga, Mudcrutch ended its set with “Bootleg Flyer,” a tune with a stuttering riff that closely resembles the one that powers “American Girl,” the song that begins the Heartbreakers’ story.
But, for the moment, damn the Heartbreakers, as Mudcrutch zigged and zagged from the stripped-down requiem “I Forgive It All” to the raging “psychedelic bluegrass” of “The Other Side of the Mountain.” The group is building what will at least be a devoted cult. And who knows? Someday a full-blown fanatical fan base may line up to hear Mudcrutch at Fenway Park.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.