Guitarist Mike Campbell, like Little Stephen Van Zandt (E Street Band) and Nils Lofgren (Crazy Horse & E Street Band), has both the distinction and anonymity of being a rock star’s sideman, playing for the better part of 50 years in the shadow of Tom Petty. While the Heartbreakers’ last tour with Petty was described as a 40th Anniversary, Campbell had played in Petty’s previous band Mudcrutch, and besides playing most of the lead guitar on Heartbreakers’ many hits, he co-wrote and co-produced most of the band’s studio albums as well as Petty’s solo work. Beyond his work with Petty, Campbell has played guitar and/or co-written with Stevie Nicks, Don Henley (“Boys of Summer”), The Wallflowers (“6th Avenue Heartache”), Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, and too many more to name. After Petty’s sudden and unexpected death in 2017, just weeks from finishing that tour, Campbell was asked to join Fleetwood Mac alongside Crowded House vocalist Neil Finn to replace Lindsey Buckingham for a world tour that took him into 2019. At that point, for the first time in his entire career Campbell was free from obligations to other artists and set to work recording an album of his own music with his long-time jamming band friends, The Dirty Knobs.
Campbell has been playing with the Knobs live as a fun diversion between Heartbreakers’ tours for the fifteen years, but this is their first full length studio album. As such, the band is a no-nonsense rock and blues 4 piece with Lance Morrison on bass, Matt Laug on drums, and rhythm guitarist Jason Sinay, but with Campbell writing, singing and dominating the band’s sound with his massive guitar prowess, long-time fans will hear plenty that recalls the former Heartbreakers’ long association with Tom Petty, right down to his similar voice, phrasing and singing style. On the rocker “Don’t Wait” or the fun folky pop of “Irish Girl,” and elsewhere it would be easy to mistake this music as an outtake from a Heartbreakers’ album. Elsewhere, you can hear the influences that Campbell and Petty held in common, The Byrds in the bright Rickenbacker guitar sound of the opening title track, The Beatles in their guitar/pop phase, the bluesy leaning of the Stones, Southern rockers ZZ Top, and the real deal sound of John Lee Hooker, who he name drops in “Don’t Knock the Boogie.”
Given that country music giant, Chris Stapleton asked Campbell to co-write some songs for his latest album, “Arkansas” and “Watch You Burn”, and along with Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench played on Starting Over, Stapleton returns the favor and shows up here performing on the country leaning “Pistol Backing Mama,” and as co-writer of the funny pop song “Fuck That Guy.” That second one not only features Campbell sing/talking in his best Petty voice, as well as playing some lovely acoustic slide, but has been turned into a pretty hilarious video, where that “Guy” is COVID-19. While Campbell’s songwriting skills are on fine display on the album’s title track, “Irish Girl” and “Anna Lee,” another handful of these songs feel pretty pedestrian in construction, but serve as vehicles for Campbell’s more aggressive guitar soloing, as on “I Still Love You,” “Don’t Knock the Boogie” or “Don’t Wait.” These tracks and several others are great fun, rock & roll, elevated significantly by Campbell’s impeccable guitar playing alone. Tench shows up to play piano on the Pettyesque “Aw Honey,” and it’s part of the bittersweet pleasure of Campbell and this Dirty Knob comrades, the fun that they echo some of Petty’s most enjoyable tendencies, and simultaneously reveal how much talent we lost in his passing.
Wreckless Abandon scratches an itch you didn’t realize needed scratching, delivering the kind of 70’s punchy guitar pop/rock, songs that would fit nicely into any bar band covering the likes of Chuck Berry, Bad Co., or well, Tom Petty. Next time, Campbell might want to invite some of his other collaborators to join in, raising the artistic quotient with the songwriting aid of Henley or Nicks, or Jackson Browne, but in the meantime he’s delivered a solid record full to the brim with his guitar playing, which is pretty damn exciting and a whole lot of fun.
Key Tracks: “Irish Girl” / “Wreckless Abandon” / “I Still Love You”
Artists With Similar Fire: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers / Keith Richards / Gary Clark Jr.
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb