''This is a trip, isn't it?'' Tom Petty rhetorically asked a smallish Malibu audience last Saturday night, pointing out that he and the musicians on stage with him were playing ''our first show together in 35 years.'' If you've guessed that Petty couldn't have been talking about the Heartbreakers — based on your vague memories of seeing the halftime show before you passed out at your last Super Bowl party — then you'd be right: The group making this live comeback was Mudcrutch, the Gainesville, Fla., band that existed in various permutations from 1970-75 before evolving into the Heartbreakers.
As cases of musical coitus interruptus go, three and a half decades is some pretty serious interruptus. But it's not as if Petty had to go on a Tolkien-esque quest to track down his old bandmates. Guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench haven't really left his side, being Heartbreakers as well as Mudcrutch-ers. The two ''new'' old guys in this crew, co-lead guitarist and singer Tom Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh, hadn't been in public view, but their skills weren't going to rust — they'd been working as music instructors in recent years. With Saturday night's benefit show at a 500-seat hall in Malibu, the reconstituted Mudcrutch kicked off a three-week California mini-tour. But the big news is that they've made an album, too — their first. Back in the day, Mudcrutch only managed to eke out a couple of unsuccessful singles before becoming a footnote in rock history. But they're an asterisk no more: Mudcrutch, the self-titled album (due in stores April 29), doesn't feel like a spontaneous one-off so much as the most classic-sounding and satisfying Tom Petty music since roughly the Full Moon Fever era.
The band members are valiantly attempting to avoid tainting this project with any of the obvious comeback terminology, however unavoidable it might be for the rest of us. ''To me,'' says Tench, ''it's not a side project or nostalgia trip or reunion. It's just a really cool band — a genuine, living band. And it's been a pretty decent break from the Heartbreakers.'' Campbell admits that ''it's nice, to get to go out and play and not have to do 'Runnin' Down a Dream' and 'Refugee' every night.'' Indeed, Mudcrutch aren't doing any Heartbreakers material live — but at Saturday's premiere gig, the material was so immediately accessible that nobody in the audience seemed to mind. Well, almost nobody; there was one woman who timidly blurted out a request for ''Breakdown'' a couple of times, backing down after noticing the disapproving murmuring around her.
You can forgive the poor woman for imagining that ''Breakdown'' would have been an okay fit in Mudcrutch's set. Parts of the new album sound more like the Heartbreakers than the Heartbreakers — or more like their vintage sound than anything they've done in the '90s and '00s, anyway. ''Bootleg Flyer,'' in particular, starts off as almost an ''American Girl'' sound-alike, though it ends with a tandem lead guitar section that's right out of the Southern-rock lexicon. Meanwhile, the single, ''(I Don't) Scare Easy,'' is in the tradition of Petty's ''I Won't Back Down.''
But there are significant differences, too. At their public coming-out last weekend, Mudcrutch kicked the show off with no fewer than three straight country songs, and there were probably a few in the audience — mostly comprising well-heeled locals and Petty diehards who'd flown in from around the country — wondering if they'd paid up to $2,500 to hear Petty in full-time twang mode. The band often sounded like something that crawled out of nearby Topanga Canyon, not distant Florida, in the early '70s. Petty has an aptitude for country-rock that he's kept mostly under wraps all these years, but much of this influence comes from Leadon, who cofounded the group. (That surname sound familiar? Leadon's older brother is Bernie Leadon, who was in the Flying Burrito Brothers before going on to co-found the Eagles, and whose success in California ''was really our inspiration to go [to L.A.] and try to get a record deal,'' says Tench.)
If Mudcrutch actually picked up some value as a brand prior to the release of this new album, you can thank Peter Bogdanovich's four-hour documentary on Petty and the Heartbreakers, Runnin' Down a Dream. Much of the well-regarded doc's first hour was devoted to recounting the Mudcrutch story. According to Campbell and Tench, Petty had mentioned the nutty idea of a Mudcrutch revival prior to that, in passing, but it wasn't until he was looking at Dream rough-cut footage that he floated the idea in earnest. In August 2007, the band got together for two weeks in Petty's home rehearsal studio for the daily recording sessions that became the first-ever Mudcrutch album. ''We didn't know if it would be good enough to be a record,'' admits Campbell. ''In the back of our minds, we hoped it would be.''
A few of the songs are ones the group used to play back in the day, including ''Queen of the Go-Go Girls,'' a Leadon original about the strippers who used to work right alongside the band in Florida clubs, and ''Lover of the Bayou,'' a Byrds cover that was a staple of the original combo's set. But mostly they're new originals, written during that two-week period. ''When we got together, Tom only had two or three songs he already wanted to try with us,'' says Tench. ''So as the project developed, every night he'd write a song, and we'd record it straight away the next day. That's where a lot of the sense of vitality and freshness comes from... There was no intellectualizing going on here, and not a lot of editing on this project. The only rule was, we're gonna set up in the rehearsal room and everything will be live takes — including vocals and solos. That was our only rule.''
That no-overdubs dictum was hardest on Tench, the only member who occasionally plays more than one instrument at a time. ''I'd be hitting the piano with my left hand and organ with my right hand, having to stretch myself out,'' he laughs. That wasn't the only stretching going on. Petty, who's known as a guitarist, reverted to the instrument he used to play, bass. ''Tom was playing bass and singing at the same time,'' notes Tench, ''and I think that created a new freedom for him. He was so focused on hitting the right bass notes that his vocals became very unmannered and un-self-conscious.''
The album's epic is ''Crystal River,'' a wistful song of Neil Young-ian proportions that goes on for more than eight minutes. ''Every time we tried to cut something out of it, it didn't feel right,'' says Campbell. So they used the whole gargantuan take, which features minutes of his quasi-psychedelic soloing at a time. ''That stretched on partly because that was the first time we played together [again], and we were learning to interact with each other again. That take is literally the first time we ever played that song, on the first day. We were still getting used to the room, the sounds, getting comfortable with one another.'' If pot has been going out of fashion, this very, very early '70s-sounding mellow behemoth could single-handedly help bring the herbal substance back.
And the shortest (and maybe the catchiest) power-pop song on the album? That would be Tench's contribution as sole songwriter and lead vocalist, ''This is a Good Street.' Being frontman, even for just a song, didn't come naturally after all these years. ''We all kept saying, 'Sing out!'' recalls Campbell. ''I said, 'I am!'' Tench remembers.
So, what's next? The tour continues with stops at clubs and old movie theaters in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Ventura before a climactic six-night stand at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, which runs from April 25 through May 2. Then, unfortunately for the rest of the country, Mudcrutch will take another time-out, since this summer Petty and the Heartbreakers are booked to hit the road in the decidedly larger venues to which they've become accustomed. But ''there's a hope,'' Tench says — emphasizing the word hope, so as not to create the impression of certainty — of letting non-Californians see Mudcrutch later in the year. A question we couldn't quite bring ourselves to raise: What if fans who've been starved for this kind of direct and effusive rock & roll, ever since Petty's records took on more of a pensive singer/songwriter aura, suddenly decide they like Mudcrutch better than the Heartbreakers? All right, that's not gonna happen — but we'd still like to pitch a ''Battle of the Three-Fifths-Identical Bands'' dual tour.