One of the staples of the Los Angeles music scene has become a pseudo-annual chance to see Tom Petty play in an intimate and/or “club” setting, usually either as part of a benefit show or as a warm-up gig before a formal tour. With his side project Mudcrutch having finally released their second album, “Mudcrutch 2,” this year, opportunities to see Petty play bass in a small room in Southern California have recently been ample. After kicking off the “Mudcrutch 2” tour with two benefit shows at Cal State Northridge in May, Petty wrapped it up with two gigs this past weekend at the Fonda Theater, before the tour’s final stops in Santa Ana at the Observatory this Tuesday and San Diego at Humphrey’s on the Bay on the 30th.
For over thirty years, Mudcrutch was a mere footnote or curiosity in the life and career of Petty. And for much of Petty’s career, although Mudcrutch enjoyed the legacy of being the band that helped form and launch what would become Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, their commercially released output amounted to little more than a few rarities collected on the Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s career-spanning, six disc “Playback” box set.
Mudcrutch reformed in 2007, kicking off the iteration that marked the first time in the band’s now forty-five year history that Petty has played bass full-time, along with Mike Campbell on lead guitar, Benmont Tench on keyboards (both Heartbreakers), Mudcrutch founding member Tom Leadon on rhythm guitar, and band stalwart Randall Marsh on drums. All five members have contributed to the collective songwriting effort while Petty, Leadon, and Tench share singing duties. Herb Pedersen from The Desert Rose Band joined the second Mudcrutch album and tour adding banjo and vocals to both along with playing additional guitar on tour.
Over thirty years after the release of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers 1975 self-titled debut album, Petty reunited Mudcrutch, seemingly to revisit and recapture something of his pre-fame band. Even though their two CDs and live show engage with a less-polished and more jamband-influenced musical milieu then the discography of the Heartbreakers, most the songs from the two Mudcrutch albums have been new compositions, not to be confused with early, deep cuts that have been given a polish for a new re-release. Even though that treasure trove of beloved early demos and rare single releases certainly exists (“On the Street,” “Depot Street,” “Up In Mississippi Tonight”), other than “Trailer” the single from “Mudcrutch 2,” Petty has largely chosen for Mudcrutch to write, record, and perform new music.
Much like The Rides or The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, Mudcrutch was, and remains, a truly genius move. Yes, there is undoubtedly a commercial difference in playing an arena tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers versus smaller clubs and theaters for a Mudcrutch audience. Yet throughout these Mudcrutch shows and tours, Petty and Co. are able to fill these houses with thousand of fans who are buying their new music, and going to shows enthusiastic to hear this new music from some of Rock’s most prolific veterans. There’s a real commercial vitality here, yet more importantly, an artistic one that sets a stage for some remarkably intriguing and compelling Rock and Roll.
“Sunday night and the drugs still work. We’ve got a new album out called ‘Mudcrutch 2.’ That’d be our second album…we heard it on the radio driving in and got all excited. It’s embarrassing.”
-Tom Petty introducing ‘Trailer’
Mudcrutch took the stage at the Fonda this weekend seemingly ready to deliver two nights of no frills Rock and Roll. Their sets promptly at 9:15 both nights, after a half-hour break following an opening set from local band The Shelters. While I applaud The Shelters ability to get and keep up the energy level in the room past a certain point while the audience was awaiting Mudcrutch, their set never felt much beyond adequate. For as many favorite artists of mine that I saw as openers for someone else, I always go into opening sets hoping I’ll feel so compelled as to get that CD or want to make sure I see them again. In this case, for as serviceable as The Shelters opening set was, nothing about it did more for me than help serviceably pass the time while waiting for Mudcrutch.
The show opened with four straight songs from the band’s 2008 self-titled debut album, the traditional “Shady Grove,” and Petty’s originals “Orphan of the Storm” and “Scare Easy” with Dave Dudley cover “Six Days On the Road” slotted in between. Although Leadon clearly was having some vocal issues while he was warming up during the first song, one would be hard pressed to remember ever seeing anyone on stage last night having more fun. This was especially true of Tench, who was doing some of his best and most spirited playing.
One thing worth mentioning is that I only attended Sunday’s show. One regard in which Mudcrutch’s run has resembled a Heartbreakers tour is that most of their engagements were one-night stands, with the exceptions being the Northridge benefits, two mid-tour shows at Webster Hall in New York, and two recent stops at the Fillmore. While the two Webster Hall shows varied slightly for having Roger McGuinn sitting in, the two nights at the Fillmore were identical as well as representative of the same show and setlist were formed effectively the whole tour. In the case of the Fonda shows, the first show was the standard set, which Sunday’s effectively was as well save for the surprise mystery guests sitting in toward the end. So even among audience of devotees who had travelled to Hollywood or had been following the tour, little realistic expectation was placed on the sets from the two nights varying much if at all.
The first song from the new album was “Trailer.” One of my favorite things about “Trailer” was how it served as a vehicle for Leadon’s harmonica playing. But for whatever reason, Campbell’s guitar solo was the moment where I really looked closely at the stage setup of the whole production and really took it all in. Not only we were really experiencing seeing Tom Petty and these musicians play in a club, but the show was deftly designed to feel as much as possible like it was taking place around a stack up amps set up in the gym at the high school or in somebody’s garage. It really drove home the feeling that in the era of bands trying to make Rock and Roll more hedonistic or more bombastic, there was a place in the world for the band that was making it more approachable.
Other than “Trailer,” what could easily be described as an evening of highlights would be best represented by the catchy and resilient “Beautiful World” by Randall Marsh from the new album, a timely cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and “The Other Side of the Mountain.” The latter was part of a section toward the end of the show that more prominently featured songs from the band’s sophomore album. This section was a fun way to celebrate how Mudcrutch has evolved, and how this band is made up of great songwriters should be thought of as such. While Tench and Campbell both added meaningfully to this portion of the show (and fans of Tench’s contribution should track down has 2014 release, “You Should Be So Lucky”), the standout was Leadon’s “The Other Side of the Mountain,” which Petty described as being, “the world’s first Psychedelic Bluegrass song.” It was equally jammy and high octane, banjo-driven toe-tapping bluegrass.
The other two highlights of the night were the final two songs, “The Wrong Thing To Do” and “Crystal River.” The fact that Mudcrutch has played so few tours can make it hard to parse out which are the real showstoppers and fan favorites. In the case of these two tracks, I would point to their duties as centerpieces of the first Mudcrutch album as well as their “Extended Play Live” EP, and their choice slots helping wrap up the sets on the latest Mudcrutch shows, providing two of the last three songs, with only “Bootleg Flyer” from the same studio and live albums between them. The order of “Bootleg Flyer” and “The Wrong Thing To Do” were switched last night, as Stephen Stills sat in for the latter, trading verses and solos to close out their set. “Crystal River” served as the show’s lone encore, with Stills also reappearing at the end. Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone also materialized. And although having him onstage and sitting in on percussion was indeed good for morale, the lack of an actual second drum kit made it hard for him to contribute more meaningfully.
By the end of their set, Mudcrutch had played well over two hours of world class Rock and Roll that met and far exceeded their expectations. This is one of the rare tours, as has been the case with certain Heartbreakers outings in the past, where even though the set and show are exceedingly similar every night, I fully understand those who are traveling a long way to shows or following the tour to attend nightly. The whole show was as life-affirming and invigorating as live music is as its finest. Longtime Mudcrutch fans are hoping 2016 gives the band a greater following, or at least a deeper awareness among music fans than simply being, “Tom Petty’s side project.”
Petty has hinted at his desire to do a 2017 tour revisiting the “Wildflowers” album a la Bruce Springsteen’s recent “The River” tour. While I would be stoked at the prospect of hearing such a wonderful yet underappreciated album live, here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another eight years for the next Mudcrutch outing.
SETLIST: Mudcrutch at The Fonda Theatre
Jun 26, 2016, Hollywood, CA
- Shady Grove
- Orphan of the Storm
- Six Days on the Road
- Scare Easy
- This Is a Good Street (Benmont Tench singing)
- Lover of the Bayou
- Beautiful World (Randall Marsch singing)
- Dreams of Flying
- Save Your Water
- Hungry No More
- I Forgive It All
- Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
- The Other Side of the Mountain (Tom Leadon singing)
- Welcome to Hell (Benmont Tench singing)
- Victim of Circumstance (Mike Campbell singing)
- Bootleg Flyer
- The Wrong Thing to Do
- Crystal River