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Tom Petty gets real again

I've had a hot-cold musical relationship with Tom Petty over the years, but songs from his new/old band Mudcrutch have made me pay attention again.

Let's start with the music. Is this Tom Petty? Really? A nine-minute song released free to imeem?

We're putting the band back together.

I have this weird hot-cold musical relationship with Tom Petty, with whom I share a birthday and a bass playing background. I liked him when I was in high school--the psychedelic video for "Don't Come Around Here No More" was a welcome burst of tie-dye in a part of the decade dominated by hair-metal and disposable pop. Full Moon Fever played like a classic when it was released in 1989, and his Seattle show that year--which was not only on a night with the full moon, but on the 20th anniversary of the first moon landing--big woo-woo synchronicity--still stands out as one of the ten best concerts I've ever seen.

Then I started to lose interest. The Traveling Wilburys'first album wasn't bad, although one of my friends always said it sounded like background music at a drug dealer's house. (I think that was an insult.) I actually went to a release party for Into the Great Wide Open--at a local horse racing track, no less--and was bored. Not having learned my lesson, I went to see the tour back in Massachussetts, and was equally disappointed--the stage effects were fantastic, but the material just wasn't as good. By the time Wildflowers came out in 1994, I was no longer a fan.

He did a few cool things in subsequent years--like playing 20 nights at San Francisco's 1,200-seat Fillmore with a totally different setlist each night--but his 2002 album The Last DJ and concurrent interviews did me in. Tom Petty was angry because radio sucked? Was he serious? I mean, you couldn't turn on an adult-rock or classic-rock radio station without hearing an old Tom Petty song. He'd become one of the safe, beige-colored, market-tested staples, like Bad Company and Bob Seger and Matchbox 20, that corporate radio used to make sure nobody turned it off. Risk-free, short songs, vague but occasionally interesting lyrics, verse-chorus-verse-guitar solo, ad infinitum. OK, radio hadn't played many songs from his last few albums, but he'd had his time. Instead of whining, why not follow the path of Neil Young or David Bowie--take some risks, make some compelling music, and be happy that he was a big mainstream rock star for as long as he was? Sheesh.

Flash forward six years. Now he's gotten his first, pre-famous band back together, and it's about as pure rock and roll as you can get. There's the ill-chosen name, Mudcrutch. (I was once in a band called Pleasure Circus, and was almost convinced to name another band Liquid Sasquatch.) The handmade fliers. The live-to-tape recordings, the rough-edged guitars, the meandering solos. A nine-minute song that sounds like a Grateful Dead jam! So this is where Tom Petty came from.

Now I like Tom Petty again. I'm buying the vinyl as soon as I see it, and I'll see Mudcrutch if they came to Seattle, although it looks like summer 2008 is already booked with a Heartbreakers tour.