INSTA-REVIEW: The Dude Stripped Bare

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REMINDER: Still playing on Phawker Radio! Why? Because The Dude Abides.

ED_KING_1.jpgBY ED KING, ROCK EXPERT Hey, I remember reading about this band! This was Tom Petty‘s Gainesville, FL band before he was signed as a solo artist, putting Mudcrutch bandmates Mike Campbell (guitar) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) on the payroll. Last month saw the release of an honest-to-goodness Mudcrutch album, with guitarist Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh easing back into what must have been a 32-year interrupted dream. Meanwhile, the three who carried over to the Heartbreakers get a chance to cultivate their beards, get their garage band improv back on and stray-with-permission from the endless open marriage that is the Heartbreakers. As Campbell told The Boston Herald, “One of the problems with the Heartbreakers is too many hits…There’s very little room for spontaneity and discovery. This band is all about that. As a musician, that’s just a gift.”

Petty and his Heartbreakers buds have been showering lovers of well-crafted, old school rock ‘n roll radio with gifts for years, so they’re more than welcome to treat themselves to a quickly produced getaway with the old gang, but someone’s gotta listen to this album. Considering that Petty long ago fired Heartbreakers’ powerhouse drummer Stan Lynch; played bassist Ron Blair like a yo-yo; made solo albums, per se, without the Heartbreakers that were indistinguishable from the albums with his backing band; and got to mix it up with The Traveling Wilburys, it was hard to imagine how different the reunited Mudcrutch could sound with Petty on bass and two other guys replacing the members of the Heartbreakers with more tenuous grips on their jobs. Was this some elaborate plot to ditch Blair for a second time along with drummer Steve Ferrone and the band’s “Oliver”-turned-fulltime member, Scott Thurston? Was this a softball for director Peter Bogdanovich, who directed last year’s Petty and the Heartbreakers biography, Running Down a Dream, to develop a screenplay?

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As I spun this thing the first couple of times, sure enough Mudcrutch sounded very much like Tom Petty and theTomPetty2.jpg Heartbreakers, with three key exceptions. On the album’s opening track, the country-rock shuffle “Shady Grove”, another singer takes lead vocals on a verse – and it’s not Stevie Nicks! It’s Petty’s childhood friend, Leadon. The act of Petty giving up complete control of a recording after all these years of running the tightest ship in rock since the days of Jeff Lynne leaving no hook unattached in ELO, is somewhat shocking. As a result of Petty’s generosity, the production is laid back, flat, and inviting, like a Mudcrutch album might have sounded had this been released in 1974. The glossy, artfully deliberate overdubs that have marked all Petty releases since he first hit his stride, with the Jimmy Iovine-produced Damn the Torpedoes, are bypassed. For instance, the single “Scare Easy”, maybe Petty’s the 19th variation on his Key Message of letting us know that he’s a tough cookie, plods along like Neil Young and Crazy Horse captured live in the studio to an 8-track deck.

Although the song will likely suffer on the charts, for the truly Classic Rock fans that Petty’s releases serve, this is a welcome break from his ringing, multiple acoustic guitar and tambourine-fortified Wall of Sound. It was never enough that Petty told us he wouldn’t back down; he had to wheel out that Martin guitar army at every chance. Petty’s been toying with the Neil’s bag of tricks for some time, as Mudcrutch also does in “Last Dance for Mary Jane” fashion on their cover of The Byrds“Lover of the Bayou”, but for the first time he embraces his Topanga Canyon freak flag, allowing the band to actually jam out, mannnnnn. The Dude doesn’t have anything new to say, but it’s cool to hear it come directly from The Dude’s mouth, without all the usual fanfare and Schwab’s drugstore-styled myth making.

The jamming, as I’ve mentioned, is the third delightful departure from a typical Tom Petty release. It’s never been a secret that Campbell and Tench have been Petty’s Cliff’s Notes of Bob Dylan backing musicians, or Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and The Band packaged as Tom’s Oscar Mayer Lunchables. The Heartbreakers have hinted at great musical depth, even backing up Dylan on an unsatisfying 1986 tour, but as Heartbreakers the musicians get in and out with their spotlight moments, with not a measure lost. This has made for airtight, rock solid radio rock, but can make for some suffocating album listening. Five songs into any Petty album but Damn the Torpedoes and I’ve needed to open some windows and catch my breath. With Mudcrutch, however, Campbell, Tench, and Leadon get to feel their way around, have the chance to let their solos wander and sneak up an unexpected path.

big_lebowski.jpg“Crystal River” stretches out its Youngbloods-inspired groove for more than 9 minutes, with dueling guitars and piano that hint at the band members’ regional forefathers, the Allman Brothers. Rarely does anyone develop an instrumental part into something so memorable that it’s worth young musicians slaving over and learning note for note, but damn if it’s not cool to listen to a half dozen album cuts and not feel the weight of Petty’s all-encompassing Vision. The album is fleshed out by gentle country rockers like “Oh, Maria” and “Orphan of the Storm”, which recall Graham Parsons and his influence on The Byrds and subsequent California bands stretching into the ’70s. The re-emergence of Tom Leadon, brother of Flying Burrito Brothers (whose “Six Days on the Road” is covered) and Eagles guitarist Bernie, solidifies Petty’s links to this tradition. Campbell has expressed the possibility that the Heartbreakers will take a few years off and the hope that Mudcrutch will go back in the studio and do a little more touring. The conundrum that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers/Mudcrutch presents is that, with The Dude stripped bare, these guys finally get to make an album as low key and undramatically personal as some band that’s never had such mainstream success, like The Jayhawks. Should Campbell get his wish and Mudcrutch gets to carry on, avoiding another rote performance of Petty’s greatest hits, what’s left, another veteran entry on the jam band circuit, alongside The Black Crowes? Without the pomp and circumstance of the tasty packaging, I’m not convinced that Petty and his buds have a whole lot more to offer. But what’s it matter? This is about the gift that keeps giving.

RELATED: I Was An American Girl

MUDCRUTCH: The Story

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers perform at the Wachovia Center Thur. & Fri. Some tix still available for the Fri show.

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