Mudcrutch makes tracks: Tom Petty reconvenes Heartbreakers’ predecessor
By Jed Gottlieb
The Boston Herald — Sunday, May 4, 2008
Mudcrutch is either the fastest working band in rock ‘n’ roll or the slowest.
Tom Petty and a few of his Gainesville, Fla., buddies conjured their 14-track debut, “Mudcrutch,” in a mere 10 days. Impressive. Unless you consider the fact that the band was founded in 1970 and is only now getting around to releasing its first album.
Until recently Mudcrutch was a footnote in Petty’s history: the first band that he and future Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench played in. Long-forgotten were their Mudcrutch alums, singer/guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, as well as the band’s stomps through the swamps of Florida between ’70 and ’75.
But last summer, Petty phoned Leadon and Marsh and asked if they were interested in a reunion.
“I thought he was joking,” Leadon said from California, where Mudcrutch is finishing a brief West Coast tour to promote its album, released last week.
“I thought it wasn’t even Tom but someone pulling my leg.”
But it was the real Tom. And he was real serious.
In August of last year, Petty invited Leadon and Marsh to jam at his home studio. Less than two weeks later the quintet had a record of country rock, bayou blues and one 9-minute psychedelic hippie jam (“Crystal River”).
“We set up in a circle with just the live monitors and played and sang everything live together in one room,” said Leadon. “We got ‘Shady Grove’ in about three takes. Everything sounded great and Tom and Mike said, ‘Well, that’s the record.’
“I was like, ‘What? Are you sure?’ But it worked and we did two or three more songs that first day.”
“We started to get into a flow,” added Campbell. “Most of the stuff is freshly written and freshly played. Tom (Petty) went home every night and would come back the next day with a new song.”
The band worked out the arrangements to sometimes hours-old songs on the floor together. No headphones; no sequestering each musician in separate sound booths. Petty played bass and sang at the same time, delivering un-self-conscious, unrefined vocals (best appreciated on the Heartbreakers-like “Bootleg Flyer”) often paired with Leadon’s on-the-fly harmonies.
The sessions had an energy, urgency and spontaneity Campbell said he hasn’t experienced since the early Heartbreakers albums.
“We wanted it to feel like it was back in the day,” he said. “It was kind of a risk and we didn’t know if it would work.”
But it did – and brilliantly. Especially for the brimming-with-emotion Leadon.
Friends since high school, Leadon and Petty began their careers together.
But in mid-’70s, Leadon followed his older brother, Flying Burrito Brother and Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon, to California in pursuit of his country-rock muse. Over the years, as Petty transitioned from bar band balladeer to icon, the two fell out of touch.
“I didn’t want to bug him too much,” said Leadon. “But I really missed him.
We were as close, closer then most brothers, and that’s part of what’s so nice about this. This whole thing has been really special for me emotionally.”
“I’ve felt really lucky,” said Randall Marsh, chiming in. “It was a little intimidating, but Tom (Petty), Mike and Benmont treat us completely as equals.”
If Marsh and Leadon have gotten a second chance at stardom, Petty, Tench and Campbell have a chance to forget their stardom.
On Mudcrutch’s mini-tour, no Heartbreakers tunes are performed. For Campbell, whose been playing “American Girl” and “Breakdown” dozens of times a year for three decades, Mudcrutch is a welcome diversion, if a short respite. The Heartbreakers will hit the road again this summer, including stops at the TD Banknorth Garden (June 13) and the Tweeter Center (June 14).
“One of the problems with the Heartbreakers is too many hits,” said Campbell. “It’s a real struggle to inject new music into those shows. There’s very little room for spontaneity and discovery. This band is all about that. As a musician, that’s just a gift.”
Campbell’s sense of musical exploration can be felt all over Mudcrutch’s album – a sparse, in-the-pocket lead man, Campbell’s guitar spills well outside the lines with Mudcrutch, most notably on a Byrds cover, “Lover of the Bayou.”
Petty also is loose. At a recent show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, he piloted the already-epic “Crystal River” into a strange bass-driven coda to the shock of his new/old band mates.
“It was the Fillmore,” Petty told them after the show. “If I can’t jam at the Fillmore, where can I?”
Fans can hope this playful spirit will overtake Petty again in the fall and he’ll reconvene with Mudcrutch for an East Coast tour.
“After this Heartbreakers tour we’ll probably take a couple years off,” said Campbell. “I wouldn’t mind touring more with Mudcrutch during that break. Maybe even recording some more.”