BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Returning to the scene of some of his most memorable moments from a half century career in music, renowned Heartbreaker Mike Campbell stepped foot on The Fillmore stage for the first time as frontman Tuesday night with the Dirty Knobs before a near sell out crowd.
Best known as Tom Petty’s lead guitarist and side kick from their musical association that dates back to Jacksonville, Florida in the early 70’s, Campbell was faced with the devastating loss of his close friend and long time collaborator when Petty died suddenly five years ago this month.
Dealing with the painful grieving process for the loss of his long time mate, Campbell first dove into the role of curator along with long time Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and the Petty estate to search thru decades of outtakes and live recordings for archive releases to extend the bands‘s legacy. (Petty diehards are already salivating about the upcoming four disc anthology culled from the Heartbreakers twenty night engagement at The Fillmore in 1997, scheduled for release on November 25th).
Campbell, 72, first formed the Dirty Knobs in the late 2000’s as a creative release for stretches when the Heartbreakers weren’t touring or in the studio. ““Losing Tom was earth-shattering for me,” Campbell said in a Rolling Stone interview. “It was a total shock. It had felt like we would be playing together forever. For a while it was hard to imagine playing in my own band again, let alone one where I’m the frontman. Tom was always my beacon. But everything I’ve been doing since Tom passed is in the spirit of honoring what we did together.”
The band released their first album Wreckless Abandon in November 2020 during the height of Covid. Unable to tour, the band wasted little recording it’s follow-up External Combustion which dropped in March and has already played nearly 80 live dates this year.
Back at the intimate San Francisco venue for the first time since a Mudcrutch gig with Petty and Tench in 2016, Campbell and the Dirty Knobs took the stage punctually at 9PM as advertised. Joined by singer-guitarist Chris Holt, Lance Morrison on bass and Matt Laug on drums, the seemingly overwhelmed Campbell’s first words to the crowd, “I can’t even say what I’m feeling, so let’s just play some Rock N’ Roll,” set the stage for the next two and a quarter hours for what would be a highly cathartic experience for all involved.
Opening with “Wicked Mind” from External Combustion, The Knobs proceeded to produce a set nearly equally divided by their own originals and both Heartbreakers classics and hidden gems. The catchy track “Dirty Job,” a brilliant duet with the ageless Ian Hunter on External Combustion, would soon follow before Campbell got the crowd even more fired up by stating “I hope you all paid your babysitters. We’re going to be here for a while.”
About a half hour into the show Campbell’s wife Marcie introduced “Even The Losers,” the first true Petty classic of the evening, by recreating the memorable “It’s just the normal noises in here” intro to the Damn the Torpedoes track. A couple songs later Campbell himself introduced “Listen to Her Heart” by simply stating “My friend Tom wrote this one.” There was also no hiding the underlying sentiment of the bluesy track “I Still Love You” that followed it with the lines I still love you / And I still need you /I still want you by my side.
A slow building extended version of “You Got Lucky” that included snippets of “Breakdown,” “Rhiannon,” “Layla” and “Like a Hurricane” during Campbell’s guitar solo left the crowd on the iconic Fillmore floor in a state of near euphoria, but still the show hadn’t even reached the mid-way point. The Knobs continued to delight the crowd with their own originals such as the up-tempo “Rat City” and “Sugar” before returning to the Heartbreakers playbook with a haunting version of “Refugee” that started out downbeat before building to a grungy conclusion.
There were no brakes applied to “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” just a full frontal assault on your senses from the opening salvo before the band left the stage briefly prior to an inevitable encore that wasn’t remotely mailed in. Returning with “The Wild One, Forever” from 1976’s self-titled Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers debut album, Campbell and Company’s generous five song mini set also included the Petty tracks “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It),” “When the Time Comes,” a cover version of The Isley Brothers “Shout” that The Heartbreakers also recorded for their 1985 live album Pack Up The Plantation-Live, and finally a partial rendition of Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune.”
Part of the beauty of the band’s performances is that truly no material is out of bounds. While they’ve only recorded a total of 24 tracks for their two albums, they’ve played 20 different Petty songs over the course of the tour in addition to covering rock classics by artists such as The Byrds, Dylan, Bo Diddley and John Lennon along the way. A week ago in Salt Lake City Campbell sang “Heart of the Matter,” a song he co-wrote with Don Henley, for the first time live. The set has its staples but you just never know what you’re going to hear on any given night. It’s one of the true joys of seeing the same artist multiple times when you know that no tune is off limits.
It’s absolutely mind-boggling to fathom how seamlessly Campbell has transitioned from being an icon’s trusty sidekick into an engaging first rate frontman after being in the shadows for all those years. The only other example that comes to mind is the way Dave Grohl proceeded to conquer the galaxy with Foo Fighters after stepping out from behind his drum kit after Kurt Cobain’s death. But that was a meteoric relationship that only stretched four years.
Campbell was both Petty’s partner and brother for close to 45 years, a painful loss that both he and the music world continue to deal with. Fortunately he’s more than capable of keeping The Heartbreakers music alive. The charisma and suppressed creativity that he’s brought to the Dirty Knobs to share with us is just a delicious icing on the cake.
The Dirty Knobs have four shows remaining on their US tour. Their final gig as a headliner comes this Saturday at the House of Blues in Las Vegas. They’ll also be doing abbreviated opening sets for The Who Friday in Anaheim, Sunday in Phoenix and Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl.