Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the 9:30 Club last night. Correction: Tom Petty and two Heartbreakers played the 9:30 Club last night. Mudcrutch, the re-formed band that features Petty and Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, ripped through two hours of bluesy folk rock at the sold-out venue.
To call Mudcrutch’s output sporadic would be putting it lightly. The band formed in Gainesville, Fla., in 1970, settling into a lineup that included Petty on bass guitar and vocals, Campbell on lead guitar, Tench on keyboards, Tom Leadon on guitar and vocals and Randall Marsh on drums. Mudcrutch released just one single, “Depot Street,” in 1975 but it failed to chart and the group called it a day.
Petty, Campbell and Tench went on to form the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch seemed destined to be a footnote in Petty’s biography — until 2008, when Petty called Leadon and Marsh back into active duty. Mudcrutch released a self-titled debut album that year and played a handful of gigs. Now, three decades after forming, the band is in the midst of its first cross-country tour in support of another album, “Mudcrutch 2.” (The touring band also features country and bluegrass musician Herb Pedersen on guitar and banjo.)
Armed with a mixture of songs Petty wrote as a teenager, covers and fresh material, Mudcrutch isn’t too far removed from the Heartbreakers. At Monday’s show, the band came off a little rawer and a little looser, with a jingle-jangle sound that recalls The Byrds. (That was best illustrated by a cover of that group’s “Lover of the Bayou,” which turned into an extended jam session.)
Some of the Mudcrutch songs tended to bleed together, but the best ones stood out, including “Scare Easy,” which easily could be a latter-day Heartbreakers single, and the folksy “Trailer,” which the Heartbreakers originally recorded for the B-side to “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Toward the end of the set, “Crystal River” had a spacey, almost Dead-like improvisation. (Mudcrutch opened the show with its version of the traditional song “Shady Grove” and later played Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — two songs Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia often covered.)
Though Petty is the driving force behind Mudcrutch, the original members took turns singing songs of their own (a highlight being Tench’s tongue-in-cheek rockabilly number “Welcome to Hell”).
Petty clearly relishes playing with Mudcrutch, and why not? He’s freed from the prison of 30-plus years of hits, he’s reconnecting with old friends and he gets to play venues he’s long outgrown. Petty compared the 9:30 Club to the kind of places Mudcrutch played in the ’70s. “They weren’t nearly as nice as this, but hey, they had topless dancers,” he said in a Matthew McConaughey-like drawl.
He also really likes the songs. Several times, Petty introduced the next number as “maybe my favorite song” — later admitting that “they’re all my favorite song.”
It’s always a novelty when a rock star like Petty plays an intimate club like 9:30 (something that wasn’t lost on club owner Seth Hurwitz, who watched the show from a side-stage balcony). Fans shuffled around to get a glimpse of the golden-haired rocker, respectfully hung on to every note and cheered loudly after each song.
Still, you couldn’t help but think about how the place would erupt to the opening riff of “American Girl,” “Refugee” or any one of Petty’s many Heartbreakers hits. But this show wasn’t about that band. This was about looking back while simultaneously marching forward. It was about getting the band back together — and really meaning it.
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