Mike Campbell has been a professional musician for over 50 years, but the former Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist never had to chance to launch an actual solo tour until earlier this month. He’s playing clubs and theaters across America with his longtime band the Dirty Knobs supporting their 2020 disc Wreckless Abandon and their new LP External Combustion.
Their set is heavy on original compositions from their two albums, but near the end of the night they dip a bit into the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers catalog. At their Wednesday evening show at Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, New York, they began that portion of the evening with a stripped-down rendition of “Refugee.” “This song was written so long ago and is so poignant to me,” Campbell told the crowd. “It ties into everything going on in the world right now. We’d like to do this for you, and Ukraine, and for my lost brother Tom, who wrote this with me.”
They’re also playing the title track to the 1985 Heartbreakers album Southern Accents, a song that Petty only played on very rare occasions. “Since I’m out here playing and he’s not, unfortunately, I feel it’s my responsibility [to play this] because I love him,” Campbell said in Philadelphia on March 17. “I want to keep these songs alive. This is a special song that he wrote. I don’t want to pat myself on the back. There’s a lot better singers than me, but I think I can get inside this tune probably more than anybody except for him.”
Perhaps the highlight of the show is 1982’s “You Got Lucky,” which Campbell and the Dirty Knobs stretch out to 12 epic minutes, including a tiny tease of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon.” The set varies a bit from night to night, but at Brooklyn Bowl, they wrapped up with 1976’s Fooled Again (I Dont Like It),” a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” and 1989’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”
Mike Campbell and the Dirty Knobs continue their tour Friday evening at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry, New Hampshire. They have dates all over the country for the next couple of months, and in June they are heading into arenas, amphitheaters and even Wrigley Field to open for Chris Stapleton.
The Heartbreakers haven’t played together since Petty’s death in 2017. There’s been talk of a special Wildflowers show with guest singers, but it remains a far-off possibility. “I’m not ready emotionally to have the Heartbreakers in a room and go ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ and look around and Tom’s not there,” Campbell told Rolling Stone in 2020. “I’m sorry. I need to grieve a little more to get to that point in time, but I’m not against the idea. I do miss the guys, but Tom left a huge hole in the band.”
“It would have to be almost a voice from beyond, almost like, ‘Guys, do this for me,’” he continued. “If I got that message, I would present it to the other guys. But it hasn’t been that long. We’re still grieving very deeply. It’s a big loss.”