Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs Brilliant At Fine Line

Photo Credit: Chris Phelps

What a spectacular couple weeks of live music!  For anyone who’s out of the habit or wondering what it’s like in the venues around town, come on back to the show.  Things are as fine as ever but there’s this added layer of appreciation from both artists and fans that kicks things up a notch.  We’re experiencing some of the most exciting live music I’ve seen over a 45 year career.  Last night at The Fine Line was as good as it gets.

The evening opened with Nashville based Jeremy Ivey singing simple songs on an acoustic guitar.  It seemed a curious choice of opener given all the hardcore Heartbreaker fans jamming the floor.  I always wonder how somebody ends up being the opener on a tour.  Sometimes it’s label or management related.  The firm wants to get their next investment out in front of the public.  Sometimes it’s a natural connection.  How many times have you thought:  “Wow!  That’s the perfect opener for the headliner.”  That was the case with Buck Cherry opening for Alice Cooper on Saturday night. 

But on occasion it’s more about friendship and respect.  We figured that out pretty quick during the main set when Campbell invited Ivey back on stage to jam with his harp on the old Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters Pistol Packin’ Mama.  He later dedicated a song to Ivey’s wife, country star Margo Price, with whom they’d recorded one of the songs on the new album.  It served notice that Ivey was there because this tour was about having a good time with friends.  That was the vibe of the entire evening.

Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs was a tough ticket.  Not only because every hardcore Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers fan would give his or her right arm to see running mate Mike Campbell up close and personal.  But also because this show got Covid bounced twice.  It took two years to bring it to the stage.  It was worth the wait.

I know it’s early in the year and that there will be a pile of cool shows coming down the pipe.  Many will make a bid for my favorite. Last night set a really high bar.  It was damn near perfect.

My notebook contains pages and pages of notes and reactions.  I don’t think I’ve ever written down more things I wanted to remember and report on.  Unfortunately, it would be a book; not the story of my night at The Fine Line with The Dirty Knobs.  So let’s skip the details and cut to the chase.

Why was I so geeked about the show?  I’ll be the first to admit that in my, not so humble, opinion, I believe The Heartbreakers were the quintessential American Band.  I remember once explaining to my 8 year old son why Petty, not Springsteen, was The Boss.  He grew up believing that.  Last night he was up front to watch one of his heroes.  Before we parted, he told me he needed to be close to watch his hands.

I’ll also point out that for me rock and roll is all about the electric guitar.  While everything else is important, it’s window dressing.  When we imagine a picture of rock and roll, it’s the pose of the guitar player.  Dressed the way you’d dress if you had the balls.  Blasting down the Establishment walls with those six strings.  Patti Smith called her guitar a nuclear weapon a couple years back.  She was right. 

I’ll also confess that in the pantheon of guitar players, I put Mike Campbell way up my list.  So take anything I say here with a grain of salt.  There’s a bit of fanboy in play this time.

Standing there with a grin plastered across my face, I kept thinking how lucky we were to be seeing this generational talent in a small club.  Here was a 40 year veteran of the arena stage.  Standing beside Tom Petty and after his tragic passing, playing lead guitar for Fleetwood Mac.  What was he doing here?  He’s certainly not a guy who needed to take a step down just to hang onto a paycheck.  Before long the reason became crystal clear.  Players got to play.

There are basically two types of live music fans.  Those who love the huge, choreographed and brightly polished arena show.  With so many people working together, the best bands produce a huge product.  It’s spectacle and power.  Served up at 115 decibels.  A rock and roll tsunami.  Those big polished shows, by their nature can’t be spontaneous.  Too many players, techs, lighting and sound people involved to head off the reservation.  

Then there are those who are more inclined to love watching the actual act of creation.  You get up close.  You see players connecting and doing whatever comes into their heads spontaneously.  The sound system is dialed back enough that you can hear the scratch of fret board or the subtle bent note. What you see and hear is a moment in time that can’t be recreated.  The moments feel personal rather than something shared publicly. The club show strips away the make up and renders the artist human.

Some people relish the moment that a cleaned up, swaddled baby is handed to them by the nurse.  Some people prefer what it took to create that baby.  Arena show, you get the baby.  Club show, you are part of the creation.  I, for one, lean towards making that baby.  Just sayin’….

Campbell informed us this was the final night of a 3 week run after two years off.  They were headed home to recharge, see their families and get ready to do it again.  That contributed in two ways.  The final night of any long effort has an element of celebration to it.  We felt that.  Second, for a band that jettisoned the set list a couple songs in, it was a chance to take all those little things they’d learned about each other in the past few weeks and apply them. 

When Campbell mentioned they were going to play Stump The Band, he meant it.  He also understood that The Dirty Knobs could follow him wherever his muse led him.  Nobody had more fun last night than Mike Campbell & The Dirty Knobs.  It was infectious.  

Were there Heartbreaker songs?  Absolutely.  But those chosen tended to be a bit unexpected.  Each was radically reworked in a way that honored Tom but in no way tried to duplicate the original. Bottom line, they’re a blues band.  Things were spontaneous and organic.  The band laid down the boogie and Campbell just rode the wave.  

The great thing about tearing up a set list is that whoever is driving the bus tends to get into a mode for a couple songs.  The next one just feels right to them.  You settle in.  Then they change things up when somebody else gets a bright idea.  So, yes, there were those Heartbreaker rockers.  But I was struck time and again how many times I heard echoes of The Stones’ Exile On Main Street (a desert island entry for many of us).  In another section, it was 1960s Laurel Canyon vibes.  You could hear CSNY or Roger McGuinn dripping from the stage.  And then we’d be off to Muscle Shoals where he shared his southern roots.  Most of all it was American as could be.

The back end of the show, along with most of the extended encore, began with the band laying down a boogie groove.  Over the top of it Campbell’s white Gibson Firebird flowed through a myriad of killer hooks from famous rock tunes.  It was cool watching The Knobs react.  “Oh that’s a good one!  Where’d that come from?”

It’s a joy to watch an elite guitar player work.  However, it’s a special treat when we get to watch them “play”.  By that I mean, just have a blast playing with something they love.  No real idea of where they’re going.  Entering some kind of flow state.  Watching Mike Campbell play last night was like listening to somebody singing in the shower.  He’d have had a great night with his bandmates whether any of us were there to hear it or not.

And that makes sense.  Anybody who’s ridden the career arc that Campbell has must have begun by loving that instrument.  And loving rock and roll.  But I have little doubt that over time it gets really hard.  And dare I say, boring.  You’re in a Hall of Fame band and you’re playing to crowds that never total less than the tens of thousands.  But you have a responsibility to do the same thing night after night, hitting your marks, making sure you never throw the band off stride.  Your job is to hand that cleaned up and swaddled baby to those parents every time.  It’s work.  A great job for sure.  But it’s not like heading off on an adventure with friends.  

I think Mike Campbell missed that.  I believe he’s really happy playing with this bunch.  On 0ccasion, he had the house lights brought up so he could see people standing in front of him.  He engaged.  He asked questions and names.  He thanked individuals.  He took requests.  It was more like we were all invited into his basement studio for a party.  Imagine how different that is for somebody like this guy.  A return to who he really is.  A man who loves music more than he loves being a star.  That small club setting gave him a chance to interact intimately with an audience in a way that could never happen from the Excel stage.  That interchange is the seed from which every rock and roll musician springs.

My favorite moment?  The band did this slow burn, blues take on the classic Refugee from Damn The Torpedoes.  Never working hard, it was imbued with a naked power that moved me more than the original.  Afterwards, he reflected on how that song had continued to grow and have new meaning over the ensuing years.  How the refugees they wrote about some 40 years ago are still with us.  How the need to address it is more important than ever.  Great rock and roll has always been the voice of social conscience.

“That”, he said, “was a testament of the genius of Tom Petty”.  And Mike Campbell, who breathed life into it.  Over two and a half hours.  Effortless.  Joyful.  Forget the finished baby.  Making it is still the best part.