When Tom Petty is inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in New York City on Thursday, he'll get to play just one song to demonstrate his worthiness.
But at the Fillmore Philadelphia on Tuesday night, where he fronted Mudcrutch, the reunited Gainesville, Fla., bar band that he co-founded in 1970 with Tom Leadon, Petty said he wouldn't take the obvious route and perform "American Girl" or "The Waiting" or "Free Fallin' " - or any of the embedded-in-the-brain ear worms that he has cranked out over the course of a 40 plus year career.
Instead, he said, "I'm going to do a new one. I told them, 'You know, I still do this.' "
Indeed he does. And with Mudcrutch, the 65-year-old songwriter is doing it with significantly more inspiration and aplomb that he has on the recent workmanlike albums he’s released under his own name. That’s evident on Mudcrutch 2, the surprisingly strong and energetic second album - like The Godfather: Part II, it’s at least as good as its predecessor, which came out in 2008 - by the band whose members include guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, plus guitarist Leadon and drummer Randall Marsh.
And it was even more clear at the Fillmore, where the band - joined on tour by a well chosen ringer in veteran Nashville guitarist and banjo player Herb Pedersen - played a generous-spirited two-hour stoner-rock show before a packed house that appreciated seeing an arena-headlining classic rock luminary in a comparatively intimate club setting.
Petty thumbed the bass rather than played guitar, and while Mudcrutch is unquestionably his band, he’s more than happy to spread songwriting and singing duties around. Everybody on stage sang at least one song, with Campbell’s country-rock rip “Victim Of Circumstance” and Leadon’s psychedelic bluegrass “The Other Side Of The Mountain” clear standouts.
Reconnecting with their roots, there were also cool covers, beginning with the trad folk song opener “Shady Grove,” with vocals traded by Petty and Leadon - the brother of former Eagle Bernie Leadon. “Knockin' On Heaven’s Door” - “We have to do at least one Bob song a night,” Petty said - played like a singalong encore though it was plopped down mid-set. And the evening closed with the raucous rumble of Bo Diddley’s “Hey! Bo Diddley.”
But besides the casual atmosphere, with the lank-haired, bearded Petty much more chatty and relaxed than usual, what distinguished the evening was the quality of the musically varied songwriting and the offhand expertise with which the loose-limbed arrangements were executed.
Mudcrutch was the band that got Petty out of Florida, with a record deal that took them to L.A., where they promptly broke up after releasing one single. (The leader then retained Campbell and Tench in his new group.) Reforming them in the 00s and now for a second time allows him to explore what might have been, and clearly has motivated him to put his best foot forward. The band stretched out in varied directions, from Grateful Dead-esque improvisations on “Crystal River” to bruising garage-rock on “Hungry No More” to the chiming “Save Your Water” a top-notch cut from the new album that, it turns out, “was the first song I was proud enough of to admit I wrote.”
The song Petty plans to do at the Songwriter’s gala on Thursday, also from Mudcrutch 2, is a quietly meditative, acoustic number called “I Forgive It All.” “I have not been down these roads since I was a child,” he sang on Tuesday in a familiar drawl. It’s a long look back at where the rock star came from and where he finds himself now, once again playing with his old band while doing what he’s always done: singing really good Tom Petty songs.