CD REVIEW: IS MUDCRUTCH THE MISSING LINK?

My first impression of the new Mudcrutch album (Reprise Records) is that it represents the missing link between The Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. Seriously. This record sounds like it could have come out in 1970 and yet at the same time, sounds brand new. It also captures the enthusiasm of a band making their debut album, despite the fact that several members have been riding high above the ever-changing waves of the music business for 30-plus years.

Fans of Tom Petty know Mudcrutch as the name of his early band which left Florida in 1974 for the West Coast to be welcomed with a Shelter Records recording contract in the very first week, only to break up shortly after recording one single. The lineup included Petty on bass, Tom Leadon on guitar, Randall Marsh on drums and future Heartbreakers Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keys.

Late last year, Tom Petty invited original members Randall Marsh and Tom Leadon to reunite with Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell in a reformed Mudcrutch. They recorded an album simply entitled Mudcrutch, released on April 29, 2008, by Reprise Records. The inner sleeve of this album indicates that it was recorded live - vocals, harmony, everything. What comes through loud and clear on this album is the existence of a love for each other and the music that you can’t simply graft onto music with all the help of technologies like ProTools. It’s simply written and played by master musicians who have the ultimate respect for the language they speak.

In this day of digital music and iPods, the trend has been to listen to “songs” as opposed to “albums,” but I would strongly suggest listening to this disc in its entirely, for context as well as your listening pleasure. Mudcrutch represents the past, present and future of American roots music, with shades of bluegrass, country, blues and of course, rock 'n' roll, which is alive and well on this masterpiece. As with any project involving Petty (and Mike Campbell for that matter), this record is all about “the song,” which enables the soloists (Tench, Campbell, and Leadon, who play with equal aplomb) to complement (versus overwhelm) each track with their melodic contributions.

The opening number, “Shady Grove,” has a strong acoustic bluegrass vibe, with both Petty and Leadon sharing lead vocal duties. “Scare Easy” comes next, and it is obvious from the opening lyrics (“My love’s an ocean, you better not cross it”) and first chorus that it is one of the catchiest and best Petty songs written over the past 30 years, with a swagger that would make The Rolling Stones proud. The bittersweet melody and lyrics of “Orphan of the Storm” superimposes a prayer for a fallen Katrina-ravaged angel over a musical bed that recalls Gram Parsons and Clarence White.

When I read in the liner notes that Mudcrutch covered the Earl Greene / Carl Montgomery trucker’s anthem “Six Days on the Road,” recorded by everyone from Dave Dudley to most recently Sawyer Brown, the thought that crossed my mind was “Why bother?” That being said, I was shocked at the freshness and vitality of the Mudcrutch version. When Petty sings “My hometown's coming in sight, if you think I'm happy you're right,” you know he’s traveled those same Southern highways as his voice resonates with both believability and vulnerability.

“Crystal River” is the album’s jam track, with a beautiful melody and another strong hook by Petty. The long middle section, with Tench, Campbell and Leadon soloing over a 1/7 chord progression, has a laid back Grateful Dead looseness, with Campbell breaking out the e-Bow and echoplex to give a nice spacey feel. When listening to this track, I can almost hear Jerry Garcia’s envelope-filtered guitar creeping into the mix.

“Oh Maria” is another beautiful Petty track, with a laid back mix of acoustic and electric guitars and Beatle-esque bridge. Mike Campbell also contributes some dreamy pedal steel effects courtesy of his B-bender Telecaster.

Benmont Tench gets to stretch out his pipes on his composition “This is a Good Street,” as does Tom Leadon on his “Queen of the Go-Go Girls,” and both voices contribute to the overall richness of the disc.

The Byrds influence is never too distant on this album, and ultimately, the Roger McGuinn/Jacques Levy track “Lover of the Bayou” makes a powerful appearance with its ragged guitars and apocalyptic vibe. This is no doubt the hardest rocking track on this disc, with the interplay between the guitars at its very best. Mike Campbell again breaks out the B-Bender Tele, offering some tasteful yet heavy riffs a la Jimmy Page, all to great effect.

“Topanga Cowgirl” contains a happy riff that seems to be laughing, conjuring up images of youth on the beach on a sunny day in Southern California. “Pacific Ocean” sings Petty, “between the rocks and the sky, and my Topanga Cowgirl waves her hand as she rides by.”

The album closes acoustically with the country original “House of Stone,” which sounds like it could have been an outtake from Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel album.

In conclusion, Mudcrutch is a great record, and I highly recommend it. In his desire to create “what might have been,” Petty has created what might be his best album and certainly one of the most important albums of the decade. Whether Mudcrutch will ever record or tour again is anyone’s guess, but if not, a warm thank you to Mr. Petty for giving the world this wonderful gift of timeless music.


Reviewer Tom Guerra (left) with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Mudcrutch lead guitarist Mike Campbell

* * *

Guitarist Tom Guerra is in the process of recording the fourth CD with his trio, Mambo Sons, and is performing various dates around the Northeast. For more information, visit www.TomGuerra.com.