Review: Mike Campbell and The Dirty Knobs

I’m here to testify. Salt Lake City rocks on a Tuesday night! The unknown legend Mike Campbell and his Dirty Knobs played to a packed house at The Commonwealth Room on Oct. 18, 2022. For me this show offered a personal musical bookend. I first saw Mike Campbell on my 16th birthday in July of 1978. He was the lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers who opened for those bad boys from Boston, the J. Geils Band at the now defunct “sweat box” (The Cape Cod Coliseum in South Yarmouth, Mass.). Through the haze of reefer smoke, I witnessed one of my first great rock ’n’ roll shows. At 16, there was no place I’d rather be. 

Fast forward to 1987. I saw Campbell and Petty again when they opened for Bob Dylan in London. That night, a rare hurricane-like storm hit the city and nearly blew the roof off the bed and breakfast where I slept happily exhausted from a night of youthful exuberance (but that’s a tale for another day). The J.Geils Band broke up after they released their 1981 hit album, Freeze Frame. And, tragically, Petty left us in 2017. And now we fast forward once again to the Commonwealth Room where Campbell was the last rocker standing from that memorable 1978 show of my youth.

Campbell, and his band the Dirty Knobs, have been busy opening for The Who in arenas across the country. Lucky for us, Campbell, at 72, made a detour to the Commonwealth Room to play for a smaller Salt Lake City audience. My impossible task is to report on the highlights of his performance. He played 20 songs over 2.5 hours, well past the last TRAX train home.  Temporarily stranded, but happy, I felt 16 again. And, just like that legendary show in 1978, there was no place I’d rather be.

For those hungry, old-school rockers looking for something fresh, never fear, “new” classic rock exists. The Dirty Knobs released two new albums in 2020 and 2022. They opened their Commonwealth Room show with “Wicked Mind” from their 2022 release External Combustion. and played “Irish Girl” from 2020’s Wreckless Abandon. Artists will cover Petty for decades to come, but Campbell does more. As his co-writer for 40-plus years, Campbell channels Petty’s spirit through new, original tunes. When he played “Irish Girl,” the sympathetic energy of Tom Petty filled the venue. It seems like a wished-for song from a new Petty and the Heartbreakers album that will never come. Petty’s lyricism has rightfully passed to Campbell who already mastered the music.

Campbell played with a youthful zeal and connected frequently with the audience. You could tell there was no place he’d rather be. He gave us a musicology lesson when he brought out a Rickenbacker 12-string guitar and started playing opening riffs to several classic songs that featured the guitar’s sound. We were watching a master class on the history of rock ’n’ roll. For example, he told the crowd he co-wrote a song with Don Henley, but he’d never played it live. Since the Dirty Knobs bassist and guitarist were both in Henley’s solo band and they knew the song well, they agreed to play it for us. I expected “Boys of Summer,” which I knew he co-wrote. Instead, they knocked out an authentic version of Henley’s hit “Heart of the Matter” (another song he co-wrote.) What a bonus!

My thanks to the fan who requested “Electric Gypsy” from External Combustion, a great song I hoped would be on the setlist. Campbell played “Refugee,” an early radio hit he wrote with Petty. In this version, he slowed down the tempo to accentuate Petty’s great lyrics. But, when it came to his guitar solo Campbell cranked it up and crafted a beautiful balance of lyricism and high-octane rock ’n’ roll. “Running Down a Dream” ended the setlist and included a Campbell-esque guitar solo where he playfully inserted Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” riff. The chord progression flowed naturally between the two songs. Campbell kept it loose all evening. In my mind, he was paying homage to my London hurricane misadventure!

For the encore Campbell asked the audience what they wanted to hear. Someone shouted “Little Queenie” and on cue, the band tore into that Chuck Berry classic. They also played an extended Bo Diddley, 12-bar blues medley, featuring “Road Runner,” “Who Do You Love,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover.” And, in the finale, they snuck in a chorus of Skip James’ 1931 Delta blues “I’m So Glad.” The crowd joyously sang along. Though it may have been a nod to the 1966 Cream remake, I’d like to think the Commonwealth crowd was singing a 91 year old Delta blues number. This proves that the blues will never die. 

Alvin Youngblood Hart, who opened the show, was a case in point. He schooled the audience in his  electrified Delta blues in the old-school tradition. “Big Mama’s Door” and “Highway 61” felt like  modern, amplified versions of old resonator classics. Yet, “Big Mama’s Door,” is an original Hart composition. He ended his eight song set with an obscure Rolling Stones song “Child of the Moon.” He stripped away most of the psychedelic 1968 layers to reveal a raw, blues rocker. (For you Rolling Stones trivia geeks like me, “Child of the Moon” was the B-side of the 45 RPM single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”) Thanks Alvin Youngblood Hart for reacquainting me with a B-side treasure from my childhood.

For those 500 or so lucky patrons who witnessed the master guitarist and rock legend Mike Campbell ply his craft at the Commonwealth Room, tag and post your pictures or videos. You can’t let such an epic show go by unnoticed. Here’s the feeds: @stateroompresents (#stateroompresents), @mikecampbellofficial, @slmag

John Nelson
John Nelson
John Nelson covers the local music scene for Salt Lake magazine. He is a 20-year veteran of Uncle Sam’s Flying Circus with a lifelong addiction to American roots music, live music venues, craft beer and baseball.

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