Unsurprisingly, Mike Campbell’s Dirty Knobs’ studio album, Reckless Abandon (the original release date 20 March 2020 was postponed until now because of the pandemic) sounds very similar to his work with Tom Petty, but much more emphasis has been placed on the guitars. In fact, the whole record is packed full of great riffs and solos, 95 percent of which were recorded on the hoof during the sessions. In this sense the album might be described as ‘Petty with knobs on’.
In many ways the development of this record can be seen as a way of Campbell trying to come to terms with the death of his longtime friend and musical collaborator in October 2017. “[This album] was very helpful in helping me work through my grief,” he says. “It keeps my mind on positive things. I thought [Dirty Knob’s] music was really good and deserved to be heard,” he continues, “but out of respect to Tom I never felt comfortable doing it while the Heartbreakers were active. I was loyal to my partner, but in the back of my mind I always thought, someday, if the Heartbreakers wind down, I’ll focus on the Dirty Knobs."
And on the basis of this album you could easily believe that Campbell might have enjoyed a highly successful career as the frontman of his own band, if he hadn’t been having so much fun playing with his old friend, but also with Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon, John Prine, Roger McGuinn, and Jackson Browne, among many others.
However The Dirty Knobs have evolved in an entirely different way because Campbell simply loved playing with guitarist Jason Sinay, drummer Matt Laug and bassist Lance Morrison. “We’re like a brotherhood,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for all these years just for the love of playing together.” The album also features guest appearances by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, fellow Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, and Texan multi-instrumentalist Augie Meyers. With the band in place, all that was needed was for producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, Tom Petty) to come onboard for the album to really come together.
The title track kicks the album off with a blast; in fact Wreckless Abandon blasts the roof of the whole house off, if the video released to accompany it is to be believed. Campbell plays his maple glow Rickenbacker 360/12 electric 12-string on this particular song, but on the album as a whole he generally relied on his ‘59 Les Paul.
Chris Stapleton brought his country vibe to the next track, Pistol Packin’ Mama; though Sugar showcases a grittier sound that I much prefer. Southern Boy is a hard rocking, foot-stomping number that will be sure to go down well live, while the blues-driven I Still Love You showcases some outstanding lead guitar. "That was a very emotional lyric and very personal to me, so I didn’t think about what notes I was going to play - I just thought about a feeling I wanted to convey… a tortured 'I’ve been through hell, but it’s going to be okay’ kind of feeling. I wanted to get that out through the guitar somehow. It’s intense in that particular song, but it’s coming from a place of real feeling,” says Campbell.
On the other hand Fuck That Guy began by Stapleton casually asking Campbell one day if he could write a song with him; and the pair knocked it out in a few minutes. “That was real spontaneous and kind of a surprise. I wasn’t expecting that to happen, but it was fun,” says Campbell. The accompanying video reinforces the humouristic aspect by riffing off the idea that Covid-19 is ‘that guy’ being referred to in the lyric.
Don’t Knock the Boogie offers a catchy John Lee Hooker-style groove, while Anna Lee and Aw Honey returns to the country sound. The latter was played on Campbell’s old Fender Broadcaster, while the acoustic parts were played on a Martin D-45 and a Gibson J-45 from the 1950s and 60s. “I always record with those because they just sound so good," explains Campbell.
The Boogie reprise aside, the album closes on a heavy track, Loaded Gun, which recalls the sound of AC/DC. Campbell himself acknowldges that influence, along with Led Zeppelin, and even a bit of punk. As he says himself: “it’s not all '60s music; it’s everything I’ve soaked up in my life. As a musician, you grow up and you listen to stuff and it inspires you and it stays with you. Then when you start playing, you find those kinds of nuances coming out - whether you want them to or not."
"I’m just following the muse wherever it wants to take me," Campbell says in conclusion. And while that muse inevitably draws heavily on his long relationship with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, it also is strongly driven by the desire to have a good time, enjoy more ‘guitar freedom’, and to share it. The Dirty Knobs’ planned tour in 2021 to promote Reckless Abandon will certainly be one to watch out for.