Review: Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs Return With Their Second LP ‘External Combustion’

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I think we were all devastated by the loss of Tom Petty but probably nobody more than Mike Campbell. Campbell had been Petty’s “co-pilot” and musical consort for over forty years. I’ve been a huge fan of Mike Campbell since the first time I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live at Kemper Arena in 1985. I remember thinking, “Wow, this guitarist is one of the best I’ve ever seen.” I think Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at something like number 79 on their list of “best-guitarists-ever” and I think that was underrating him. I think when he co wrote Don Henley’s big hit “Boys Of Summer” it was the moment people started to more widely recognize what a talented guy Campbell was. I wondered what Campbell would do in a post-Petty world. He joined Fleetwood Mac for a tour but alas no studio record was forthcoming from that line up of the famously member-shifting band.

Fortunately for fans of rock n roll music played by talented musicians, Campbell and his long time side project the Dirty Knobs released their debut album Wreckless Abandon two years ago. The Dirty Knobs are Campbell (guitar/vocal), Jason Sinay (guitar), Matt Laug (drummer) and Lance Morrison (drums). The Knobs had been playing together for years but hadn’t released anything until that 2020 debut LP that we frankly loved down here at B&V. The Dirty Knobs are a guitar forward rock band who dabble in country rock. The sound of the Dirty Knobs conjures the feel of a roadhouse on the outskirts of town, perhaps at a crossroads, with dust and peanut shells on the floor and empty beer bottles strewn about… perhaps a tattoo’d waitress dressed inappropriately for her age and a bathroom you’re nervous about using. It’s gritty rock n roll played loud. You don’t hear good ol’ rock n roll like this much any more… there’s not even the rumor of a synthesizer.

I will admit, when I saw the album cover (pictured above) I wondered if this second LP from the Dirty Knobs, External Combusion, would see them head in a different direction. First and foremost, they’ve put Mike Campbell’s name on the cover. The original cover art of the debut was credited to just “The Dirty Knobs.” Now the band is Mike Campbell & the Dirty Knobs. He’s also pictured on the cover vs the Klaus Voorman artwork of the debut. I guess someone down in marketing at the label realized there was some brand recognition they could exploit from Campbell. Also, in the background of the cover, there’s a Rickenbacker guitar (a favorite of Petty’s) but it’s on fire. Is Campbell subtly saying good by to his former friend? Is he burning down his past? Or am I just reading too much into it? I’ve read this sounds less like a band-centric LP and more of a Campbell-centric LP but I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s a more varied sounding record than the first one but the sound is very similar to the debut. When a lead guitarist steps up to the microphone to do his own music it can often be guitar indulgent, like say Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell’s solo music, but I don’t get that here.

The album opens with what may be my favorite Dirty Knobs song, the rocking “Wicked Mind,” which we’ve reviewed previously. I can’t listen to this track enough. It’s a free wheeling rocker with lyrics I can totally relate to. “I don’t think you understand what kinda man I really am, I’m sinner with a rebel soul, got a wicked mind with a heart of gold…” Yeah, that sums it up for me. The next track “Brigitte Bardot” is a galloping country rocker. This may sound crazy but other than the lyrics it sounds like a classic train song to me. It has that locomotion thing happening. I love that groove. The next track “Cheap Talk” starts with drums that Cheap Trick would envy. It’s a riff rocker of a “baby done me wrong track.” For me, it’s not as good as the first two tracks but it’s a solid tune. “External Combustion,” the title track, is another great rock song much like “Wicked Mind.” “Tell me the truth, that’s all I want, external combustion…” It’s another track that just sticks in your mind. “Dirty Job” is another favorite. It’s another big rock song full of guitar riffs and funny lyrics and features Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople fame on co-lead vocals. Hunter’s gravely vocal turn on the duet adds some texture to a great track. “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.” Oh, yes, “it might as well be me…” I think we’ve all been there.

The second half of the LP starts off on a mellow note with the beautiful ballad “State of Mind.” Oh man, this wonderful track slightly conjures Tom Petty “Southern Accents” to me… and probably only me. It’s a beautiful duet with country singer Margo Price. I don’t know much about her – we’re decidedly only old school country here at B&V – but we may need to look into her. It’s all beautiful vocals and pedal steel. I can see people drunkenly slow dancing to this track at closing time in the aforementioned imaginary roadhouse. Things get back to rollicking with the next track “Lightning Boogie” which is more of a vamp than a song, kinda like “Don’t Knock The Boogie” from the first album.

“Rat City” is another rocker like “Cheap Talk.” Big riffs and complaints about the music business. I like this hard rocker more than “Cheap Talk” and it features someone else in the band singing with Campbell – is it Sinay? I literally can’t find any documentation. “In This Lifetime” takes us back into ballad territory and I have to say, wow, another gorgeous mellow track. It conjures a George Harrison-like ballad landscape. It’s a mesmerizing track with an emotional depth that grabbed me. “It Is Written” is a jaunty travelogue sounding track that veers subtly into politics. “People are hurting, people of all ages, Mother Nature is angry and Cold War wages…” It’s another great track and really the first midtempo thing I’ve heard on this album. They wrap it up with another country tinged rocker “Electric Gypsy” that may serve as Campbell’s autobiography. It features some of the fiercest guitar solo’ing on the album.

Listening to External Combustion and the Dirty Knob’s debut album this week really brings home what a brilliant guitarist, songwriter and performer Mike Campbell is… and he’s found the perfect band as a vehicle. I hope these guys tour to a venue near me soon. I think they’ll be awesome live. If you’re a fan of rock n roll or a fan of Tom Petty this is a must hear of an album. This guy has too much talent to be ignored.

Cheers!

New Song! Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs Return With “Wicked Mind” – A Great Tuesday Rocking Surprise!

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What a pleasant surprise on a Tuesday! I got up this morning prepared to face the usual January drudgery brought on by winter, in conjunction with my corporate masters (who have really upped their game this year) when a friend texted me that former Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers lead guitarist and “co-captain” (Petty’s words) Mike Campbell and his new band The Dirty Knobs had put out a new song, “Wicked Mind.” As most of you know, I was all in on the Dirty Knobs (Campbell, Jason Sinay on guitar, Lance Morrison on bass and Matt Laug on drums) after the release of their sensational debut album Wreckless Abandon. In fact, it made it onto my list of “best of albums” for 2020 a couple years back.

I guess the Dirty Knobs have been around since long before the untimely and sad demise of Tom Petty, who was a true American Treasure. Campbell met Sinay during a recording session and liked the way their guitars sounded together. Well, let me be the first to say – well, probably not the first to say – I love the way their guitars sound together. I was wondering what would happen to Mike Campbell after the Heartbreakers dissolved in the wake of the tragedy. He’s just too good a guitarist and songwriter to go idle. He co-wrote so many great songs with Petty. He also, and some don’t know this, co-wrote the Don Henley track “Boys Of Summer.” I think that was Henley’s biggest hit. I was glad to see him take the Dirty Knobs “mainstream,” (if you will) by actually recording Wreckless Abandon in 2020 versus keeping them in the shadows. Of course Campbell was part of the duo of musicians who joined Fleetwood Mac to replace Lindsey Buckingham (along with Neil Finn of Crowded House fame). I thought that would be interesting for Fleetwood Mac as Campbell would bring back that Peter Green era vibe for those guys – and he did end up playing some of that original Mac material. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to materialize into any new music from them.

I had no idea the Dirty Knobs were even recording. I really dug Wreckless Abandon. It was truly uncanny how much Campbell’s vocals sounded like Petty. His phrasing and vocal style are very similar… obviously Petty was a better singer but still his ghost was hanging all over that album… but maybe that was just me. Losing Petty blew a big hole in my rock n roll universe. Wreckless Abandon rocked a little harder than the Heartbreakers had in a while. Campbell himself described it as a more “loose limbed” affair, whatever that means. It was kind of Stonesy to me. Other than the rocking songs I also loved the ballad “Irish Girl.” They also showed their sense of humor with songs like “Fuck That Guy.”

“Wicked Mind,” from the upcoming March LP External Combusion picks up right where Wreckless Abandon left off. It’s a barrel house rocker. Campbell and Sinay twine their guitars together for a big riff with an acoustic guitar being strummed aggressively along just for fun…over the bedrock rhythm section of Morrison/Laug. This band is growing tighter and tighter. I love the lyrics, “High as a kite, hiding from a searchlight, I didn’t get home until way past midnight.” That sets the tone for the naughty good times on this record! “I’ve got a wicked mind with a heart of gold…” which is how I always thought of myself in the old days…well, maybe not just the old days. The guitar solo’ing on this song is out of the world. Campbell and Sinay torture those guitars. The song ends with them riffing until the end when a second fabulous guitar solo breaks out. Here is the track, everyone who digs guitar driven rock should check out:

All of us down here at B&V are looking forward to the new Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs LP, External Combustion. Between the new Mellencamp album that we’ve been listening to all week and this surprise single, it looks like 2022 is going to be a cookin’ year for rock n roll.

Cheers!

Review: Mike Campbell’s New Band The Dirty Knobs, ‘Wreckless Abandon”

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While I could – on a very personal level – argue that 1994-1995 were my worst years, I believe I’m safe in saying that on a more universal level 2020 has been the worst year of all our lives. With all the general suck-iness and downright awful shit that has happened in 2020 I have to admit… and I don’t say this about many years… it’s been a great year for rock and roll. I looked back at some of my old “best of” lists for past years and more than once I fell into quoting Don Henley, “it was a pretty good year for fashion, a lousy year for rock and roll.” I certainly can’t say that about 2020. Unable to tour, many bands from AC/DC to Springsteen & the E Street Band put together new albums. If there wasn’t new music, many artists from Neil Young to the Stones put out great stuff from the archives. I’ve been so awash in new music (or vault stuff) that I’ve found myself writing twice a week this fall… which is probably better for me than the folks who actually read B&V… 😉

Lately, one vault release I find myself returning to most often is Tom Petty’s box set for his landmark album Wildflowers, entitled All The Rest, Tom Petty: ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest – Deluxe Edition (4 CDs)’ – A Petty Masterpiece Lovingly Revisited. It’s an easy box to get caught up in. While Wildflowers was a Petty “solo” album, just like all his other “solo” stuff, Petty’s “co-pilot” and main collaborator was guitarist Mike Campbell. Campbell can play pretty much any stringed instrument he chooses to pick up. I remember the first time I got to see Petty and the Heartbreakers in concert. It was June 26th of 1985 on the Southern Accents tour and man was I blown away. In retrospect the Confederate flag as a back drop was an awful mistake… I’m not sure we all understood the bad symbolic importance of that particularly odious flag. Also, Petty had those awful lamb chop sideburns. I heard his wife at the time offered to donate money at Live-Aid if he’d shave those off. I’m with her on that, I promised my sainted grandmother I’d never grow facial hair, but I digress. That hot June night in 1985 I was mesmerized by not only Petty but the tall, skinny guy with the curly hair standing to his right, Mike Campbell. When Campbell played the guitar solo on “Don’t Come Around Here No More” I almost swooned and I’m a pretty rugged guy or at least I like to think so.

That concert was the first time Campbell’s greatness really crystalized for me. I recognized him from, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, watching videos on MTV. I had most of Petty’s back catalog at the time and saw that Campbell co-wrote a lot of the best songs but I’m not sure I realized what a force of nature he was until actually seeing him “light the sky on fire” as my friend Stormin’ says. I quickly realized that night, all those great riffs (like on “You Got Lucky” a synth laden track where the guitar is the star) were courtesy of Mike Campbell. People talk about the great collaborators in rock and roll: Paul McCartney and John Lennon or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards but people ought to speak more about Petty and Campbell. I don’t think you could find two people with more synergy than those two guys. I’m not sure Petty realized what a truly valuable collaborator Campbell was until Mike co wrote “Boys of Summer” with Don Henley. It was a bigger hit than anything off of Southern Accents and at that point I think Petty decided to expand Campbell’s creative input. I’m just guessing on that. Rolling Stone magazine has Campbell at number 79 on their list of 100 best guitarists and frankly I think that’s low. Way low.

I wondered what would happen to Mike Campbell after the tragic death of Tom Petty (RIP Tom Petty, 1950 – 2017, A Devastating Loss: The Composer of the Soundtrack to My Life Is Gone). Mike is truly one of the most talented, important guys in rock and roll and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s an “unsung” hero, he should be getting more attention than he does. It was with some surprise that I heard that Campbell joined Fleetwood Mac after they’d cut ties with Lindsey Buckingham (Bummer News: Fleetwood Mac Tells Lindsey Buckingham To Go His Own Way). Campbell’s long association with Stevie Nicks probably made that a no brainer. I was excited to hear Campbell talk about playing some of that old Peter Green stuff from the Mac. Alas, it doesn’t look like this latest configuration of Fleetwood Mac will be doing any recording. Instead, Campbell has released a new album with a band he’s had as a side project for quite a while, the Dirty Knobs. I love the name. This isn’t Campbell’s first band on the side… The Rock Chick discovered and played me the great LP by the Blue Stingrays. It’s a surf rock gem, Friday Night Music Exploration With the Rock Chick: Blue Stones, Blue Stingrays, although Campbell and the rest of the Heartbreakers chose to remain anonymous on that album.

In the run up to the release of the Dirty Knobs’ new album, Wreckless Abandon, Campbell had said that this was a heavier, more raw-boned album than the Heartbreakers stuff. While that is mostly true, so alike were Campbell and Petty in their style and approach that it’s hard not to listen to this and hear an echo of the Heartbreakers. Well, the Heartbreakers without the keyboards, this is a guitar record. It would be easy to think of this as a recording of stuff that Campbell would turn over to Petty as a demo tape, not that there is any sort of an unfinished aspect to any of this great music. Even the Rock Chick said, upon playing this album, “Wow, he really sounds like Petty.” The Dirty Knobs, besides Campbell on vocals/guitar are guitarist Jason Sinay, drummer Matt Laug, and bassist Lance Morrison. One of them sings with Campbell on “Loaded Gun,” but I’m not sure who.

The album begins with the first single and title track, “Wreckless Abandon.” The track starts with a sitar and then the band kicks in with a great rocking groove. I will admit up-front that Campbell’s voice is a little thin and perhaps even reedy in a few places. I still like the vocals on this record. I know a lot of people get nervous when the guitar player steps up to the microphone. A lot of people head for the beer line when Keith Richards gets to the mic, but his tracks are always my favorites on Stones’ albums. I know that only I feel that way… well, me and my old roommate Drew. “Wreckless Abandon” is the kind of great rock and roll you just don’t hear anymore, sadly.

The band quickly goes country-rock for the duet with Chris Stapleton on “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” It’s a down home bunch of fun. It’s right back to the rock and roll for “Sugar.” “Sugar” is probably the heaviest song on this album. It reminds me a touch of “Honey Bee” by Petty. I love the lascivious chorus, “She’s got the sugar, oh yes she does…” As I tell the Rock Chick, I didn’t marry you because you could cook… ahem. “Southern Boy” is another great rocker. I’m considering adding it to our playlist about trains (Playlist: The B&V 50 Favorite Songs About Trains – “that lonesome whistle blows…”). “I Still Love You” is another heavy rocking track with some big riffs. I’ll say it again for emphasis, this is a guitar album!

Perhaps my favorite song on the record is, perhaps not surprisingly, the ballad “Irish Girl.” I love the acoustic guitar and harmonica. I had a girlfriend in college who told me one time that I was always drawn to ballads because I was a basically sad person but you can’t always trust your girlfriends. Certainly not that woman… Another personal favorite is a song that runs through my head every day at work – “Fuck That Guy.” Sure it’s funny and Campbell mostly speaks the lyrics vs singing them, but it’s just such an appropriate song for these days when civility has died. The world weary manner that Campbell says the title…”yeah fuck that guy” is priceless. “Don’t Knock The Boogie” is another spoken word track and is a bluesy tribute to John Lee Hooker. It’s really just an excuse to let Campbell riff and I’m ok with that. “Ana Lee” is another sweet, acoustic ballad. “Loaded” is another heavy rocker. This album is just loaded with guitar, as you would expect from Campbell.

If you’re like me and you’re missing Tom Petty, Wreckless Abandon may just scratch that itch. But more broadly than that, if you like guitar, riff-rock this is your album. There’s a lot of rock and roll but there’s also some blues, ballads and a little bit of country rock. It’s basically all the things Mike Campbell does well which turns out to be everything. Enjoy this one with the volume turned up to 11.

Cheers, and as always be safe out there folks. It’s a dark ride, take care of each other this holiday season, which for me is a season to be endured.