By Leslie Witt

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have long been held in high esteem among fans of American rock ‘n roll. But fewer know about Petty’s formative band, Mudcrutch, playing Gainesville, Florida bars in the early 70’s. Word has been spreading with a revamped Mudcrutch, a second album release and a national tour with a sold out WXRT show Saturday night at Chicago’s Riviera Theater.

No Heartbreaker hits here, but Heartbreaker hero, lead guitarist Mike Campbell, who needs little room to say a lot, and keyboardist Benmont Tench double in both bands. It was a sweaty evening full of winning songs, stellar playing, and collaborative spirit, revealing yet another side of Petty’s genius. Most of the new songs were composed by Petty, who will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York City on June 9.

“Trailer,” the single from the new album, 2, is a catchy, wistful vignette in a familiar Petty groove. “Crystal River,” from the self-titled Mudcrutch debut of 2008, invites the listener to float through a lush, dreamy stream of consciousness. And band members hit their goal to “break some new ground” with perhaps “the world’s first psychedelic bluegrass song” on the new “The Other Side of the Mountain.” Tradition infused Tom Leadon’s vocals to set the pace with drummer Randall Marsh. But when Mike Campbell unfurled a riveting solo, and country rocker Herb Pederson layered on waves of banjo magic, it became a runaway train. Here’s a look at the Mudcrutch homage to the Byrd’s “Lover of the Bayou.”

On Memorial Day weekend, our nation focuses on Americans we’ve lost in war. But for many it’s a time for broader reflection, and the Mudcrutch concert is a good fit: Petty’s chance to come full circle and reinvent with his long-time musical friends and roots and influences. Petty saying “What America needs most is to be nicer,” and playing his “positive” new rocker, “Hope.” Gracious as always, but looking shaggier than usual, he added, “I never cut my hair in an election year.”

And one more full circle memory worth note: Petty told the crowd that the last time he played the Riviera Theater was back in 1977. What he didn’t say, but longtime XRT listeners might know, is the date was December 2, when the Heartbreakers opened for Elvis Costello in a WXRT show. I was there, wearing red shoes, and a free souvenir Tom Petty winter scarf, reveling in my first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert.


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