Mudcrutch used to be an answer to a trivia question about former bands of famous musicians. Now, approaching the halfway point of the year, they might well be the answer to what’s the best album of 2008.
In 1974 the Gainesville, Florida band had outgrown the college town and felt it was time to seek fame and fortune. They like so many before and after headed to Hollywood for their shot at the big time. They cut a single, but it didn’t pan out well, and the band broke up. Out of those ashes came a little band known as Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, which included Mudcrutch members Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on keyboards.
Decades later with nostalgia stirred up, Petty decided to reconvene the band at his place in Malibu not knowing what to expect. They hadn’t played with drummer Randall Marsh in 30-plus years, and Petty’s guitarist/childhood friend Tom Leadon a bit longer as he left the band before they headed to California, following his brother Bernie who co-founded The Eagles. Tench had never played with Leadon, coming in as his replacement. Petty returned to playing bass and shared singing duties.
Mudcrutch delivers what sounds like a well preserved lost classic, and if the recording didn’t sound so clean, no one would have doubted the album came from another time. They capture the county/rock/folk sound that was prevalent by artists in the canyons and clubs of mid-‘70s Los Angeles back in their day.
The album opens with “Shady Grove,” an 18th Century folk song given a modern bluegrass sound as Petty and Leadon trade vocals about leaving behind the “sweetest girl in town.” It signals the listener should lose expectations because even though the band is 60% Heartbreakers, it won’t sound that way. However, “Scare Easy” finds Petty in familiar-sounding territory as Tench’s organ and Campbell’s guitar augment his voice, but it’s only temporary as he quickly heads out to the country with “Orphan of the Storm.”
“Six Days on the Road” was made famous by country music singer Dave Dudley, but California has certainly influenced the band as the song’s quick pace sounds like flying down Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible. It’s given an early rock and roll treatment with guitar and killer piano playing that brings to mind legends Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Crystal River” is an epic song that evokes another California influence, The Grateful Dead, and is my favorite track. The music and lyrics have a dreamy quality and there are guitar flourishes that evoke Jerry Garcia. Then, if there was any doubt, about three minutes in there is a long spacey bridge where the band takes off for parts uncharted as the guitars and piano trade leads. What’s on the album is the one and only take the band played.
“This Is a Good Street,” written and sung by Tench, is a simple, straightforward tune that sounds like it could easily fit onto an oldies station. It would have been good to do the twist to. All “The Wrong Thing to Do” needed was some saxophone and this rocker with attitude could easily have been a Springsteen number with its story of an independent spirit, although the narrator should have headed to Jersey instead of Miami.
“Queen of the Go-Go Girls” was an original written and performed back when the band used to play strip clubs. Sung by Leadon, it sounds like it would be a perfect fit for Neil Young’s vocals. The Byrds’ “Lover of the Bayou” is another song from the band’s old set list. Campbell delivers fantastic guitar licks on this one.
“June Apple” is a traditional instrumental and the organ is reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. “House of Stone” closes out the album, a country number that slowly shuffles along with Campbell on mandolin. The end seems to come to soon because the visit was such a pleasure, and I am already anticipating their second release.
Mudcrutch proudly states in the liner notes that the album was recorded live, making clear the album was “recorded live, vocal, harmony, everything” over the course of 10 days with the arrangements done on the studio floor. It’s a valuable lesson for musicians although the talents of the men involved make it easier than it appears.