Mike Campbell is probably the most famous rocker that you’ve never heard of. Nevertheless, you know his music, and he’s coming to the Commonwealth Room on October 18, 2022, with his band, The Dirty Knobs. I first saw Campbell on my sweet 16 birthday back in 1978 at the Cape Cod Coliseum. I didn’t know who he was then either, though at sixteen I didn’t know much. My birthday gift: tickets to see those bad boys from Boston–the funkiest band in the land–the incomparable J. Geils Band. Some guy named Tom Petty opened with his Heartbreakers.
Campbell, a founding member and lead guitarist of The Heartbreakers, co-wrote many of the band’s hits like “Refugee,” “Running Down a Dream,” and “Here Comes My Girl.” He composed the music and handed the songs to Petty to write the lyrics. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored him in 2002 as a founding member of The Heartbreakers, but his name remains less familiar than his many hits. Campbell never sought the limelight as the guitar-slinging, co-writing side-kick like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones or Slash of Guns N’ Roses. Instead, he remained a vital behind-the-scenes songwriter, guitarist, co-producer, and session musician.
In 1984, Campbell wrote a song that didn’t seem to fit well on the Heartbreakers’ Southern Accent album. So, Don Henley added lyrics and together they recorded the mega-hit “The Boys of Summer.” The song’s driving riff is instantly recognizable, but the guitarist behind it remains less so. Campbell also co-wrote the Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”
As an in-demand session guitarist, Campbell played on studio albums for a who’s who list of artists from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin, Mary J Blige to Johnny Cash and about everyone else in between. He played guitar on almost all of Stevie Nicks’ solo records.
Following Tom Petty’s untimely death in 2017, Campbell toured as lead guitarist for Fleetwood Mac during their 2018-19 world tour, stepping in for Lindsey Buckingham when he left the band (again.) In between touring with Petty or Fleetwood Mac, he performed with his side project, The Dirty Knobs. A local club band jamming in LA bars for the previous 15 years, the group provided Campbell a chance to work out some new songs and sing lead vocals.
Campbell still wanted to write music and play for live audiences, so he recorded an album with The Dirty Knobs. In 2020, they released their debut Wreckless Abandon. It’s no surprise the record, in some places, sounds like a guitar-forward version of the Heartbreakers. Campbell’s 45-year collaboration with the band isn’t something he could shake off. With The Dirty Knobs though, Campbell has the opportunity to branch out musically without the pressures of channeling the Heartbreakers. Nevertheless, his voice is hauntingly similar to Petty’s, albeit without Petty’s signature nasal twang. “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” a song featuring Chris Stapleton, has a Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” vibe. “Don’t Knock The Boogie” feels reminiscent of ZZ Top or John Lee Hooker. The album definitely appeals to Heartbreakers’ fans and those who love the classic rock sound.
Unable to tour during the pandemic to promote their debut album, they went to work on recording another record before setting out on the road in 2022. External Combustion provides another batch of hard-edged rock. The band calls on Margo Price to provide her lovely vocals on the soulful, down-tempo “State of Mind.” The Dirty Knobs crank it up with “Wicked Mind” and the title track “External Combustion.” Besides the Price track, “Electric Gypsy” is a personal favorite from this fine record. Ian Hunter, former frontman for Mott The Hoople, lends his vocals on the fun rocker “Dirty Jobs” (side note: In a hallucinogenic haze, I once saw Hunter melt on stage during a 1979 concert, but that’s a story for another day).
This summer I saw Mike Campbell and the Dirty Knobs when they opened for Chris Stapleton and Margo Price at the Usana Amphitheater (it was a hot day, but no one melted.) The Heartbreakers’ songs they played brought back some great memories. I realized at that point that I also saw Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers in London in 1987 when they opened for Bob Dylan. The third time’s the charm—because it took me three times to realize I’d seen the Hall-of-Fame guitarist Mike Campbell–three times!
Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs are out on tour this fall opening for The Who, but they’re also headlining shows at some smaller venues like the Commonwealth Room on October 18, 2022. Opening for The Dirty Knobs is Grammy Award-winning old-school bluesman, Alvin Youngblood Hart. You won’t want to miss this melt-your-face-off rock ’n’ roll show. Hallucinogenic haze is optional.
- Who: Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs
- What: External Combustion tour
- Where: The Commonwealth Room
- When: October 18, 2022
- Tickets and info: thestateroompresents.com
Read more music coverage from John Nelson here.