Old-Timer Round-Up: Mudcrutch, Steve Winwood
Is it really better to burn out brightly than to slowly fade away? If you’re Tom Petty or Steve Winwood, the answer seems to be… well, neither. Both men have been doing this whole rock and roll thing for long enough that it’s probably safe to say it’s not just a youthful fancy on their part, and even if neither of them have done much to expand their musical boundaries in recent years, that doesn’t mean they’re not making great music. On the contrary, both artists have new projects on store shelves everywhere (or the iTunes store, for their younger fans) that go out of their way to avoid burning out or fading away. These men are simply doing what they do best– what they’ve always done best– making music that stands proudly beside the material they were making when they were half this age, and proving that, even if they haven’t picked up many tricks, nobody does the old tricks better.
For his part, Petty has made it something of a reunion, bringing together his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch for a debut album that’s only three decades delayed. Oh well– it’s better late than never, as the album offers ample proof that there’s something to be said for camaraderie and chemistry; the Mudcrutch features several Heartbreakers, it’s looser, warmer, and more enjoyable than anything Petty’s done in several years. It’s an easygoing charmer of a record that won’t blow you away, but, rather, it’ll gradually and smoothly win you over with its cheerful grooves and its emphasis on the interplay between the musicians. It’s sunny, groove-oriented country-rock– in sound, not too different from what the Heartbreakers do, but in spirit, Mudcrutch is distinct from other recent Petty records, as it’s a much more laid-back and graceful affair than what he’s been doing lately. Anyone who loves this genre will easily be won over by the warm organ and guitar tones; the ambling, effortless mid-tempo pace that the album maintains; Petty’s willingness to turn the songwriting spotlight over to his bandmates on one song, and to take detours into a few covers. It’s the kind of record that feels tossed-off at first, but repeated listens reveal it to be an album of very careful craft and expert musicianship.
Winwood, on the other hand, doesn’t have a band per se, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t enlisted some A-grade talent– Eric Clapton shows up on his new record, Nine Lives, and he sounds more inspired than he has in years– nor does it mean that he hasn’t made what is essentially a band record– and a jamband record, at that. After the opening track– a scorching, moaning acoustic blues number called “I’m Not Drowning”– Winwood and his crack studio musicians settle into a series of deep, thick grooves, blending blues, funk, folk, rock, and even a few ethnic flourishes into a tightly-wound, perfectly-polished set of slow-burning, gradually-unfolding jams that, like Mudcrutch’s album, ephasize the chemistry between the musicians as much as the actual songs. There are horns, there are woodwinds, there’s some blinding rock and roll playing from Clapton on the first single, “Dirty City,” and there are some nakedly poetic, confessional lyrics about hope, courage, faith, and love. But mostly, there are gritty, brave, and thoroughly infectious songs given soulful, spirited performances by a veteran artist who’s on his A-game.
Is either album a masterpiece? No; both of them demonstrate that, well, maybe it’s possible to be a little too laid-back and easygoing, that maybe you can saunter and amble and set a leisurely pace for yourself a bit too much, that even veterans could stand to spice up their familiar sound here and there with some new tricks. But that doesn’t mean that both albums aren’t very enjoyable; Mudcrutch’s is funny and catchy and cheerful, while Winwood’s is moving and inspiring. Both of them are well worth hearing, and fine entries into the respective canons of their creators.