Back Door Slam
Almost everyone, if pressed, can recall some key point in their life when a single event caused them to suddenly and dramatically alter course. To have had such a revelation at age 11 and to have made good on it—turning a spontaneous passion into a serious profession that demands life-long commitment—now that’s a little out of the ordinary.
“I was in a car with my dad, and he put on Dire Straits’ ‘Sultans of Swing,’” explains Davy Knowles, 21-year-old guitarist, singer and principal songwriter of the blues-rock trio Back Door Slam. “I just fell in love with the music then and there. That track changed my life, and I realized, ‘I really want to be able to do that.’ ”
The inspirational moment occurred on the Isle of Man, the tiny kingdom stuck in the middle of the Irish Sea (roughly equidistant from Belfast to the west and Liverpool to the east), where the then-teenaged trio coalesced—with this particular lineup in 2006. Knowles and drummer Ross Doyle had played together in a prior version; bassist Adam Jones was the most recent to join. Taking its name from a song popularized by early inspiration Robert Cray, Back Door Slam, has, however, acted rather swiftly on its intention to make good. Under the guidance of the same IOM-based management team that launched multi-platinum, Grammy®-nominated Corinne Bailey Rae, they issued a pair of EPs and a full concert DVD, wowed audiences at the U.S.’s taste-making SxSW conference in Austin in March, 2007 and completed their first full American tour before releasing an audaciously impressive debut album, ROLL AWAY, on independent Blix Street Records, best known for the catalogue of recordings by the late Eva Cassidy.
If conventional wisdom has it that the most popular activity of the young is rebelling against everything that preceded them, it’s wisdom that is in need of some reevaluation. Both the general tradition of the blues and the specific experience of Back Door Slam refute it, in ways that support the linkage of all good music across any expanse of time or space. “Sultans of Swing” got Knowles started on guitar (“I nicked my dad’s acoustic and figured the song out by ear. I must’ve played it for a year.”) and led him to his father’s record collection. “That’s where I found people like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers,” Knowles recalls with obvious fondness, “and, from there, I got into Eric Clapton and Peter Green in the early Fleetwood Mac, and [late Irish axe-man] Rory Gallagher, who I just love. Then I began reading guitar player magazines and started seeing who the people I was influenced by had listened to, which is how I learned about Blind Willie Johnson and Robert Johnson.”
While classmates spent time tuned in to Metallica or Britney Spears, Knowles “was more into the vintage music.” So were his eventual bandmates. “Ross initially liked indie rock, though he’s really into blues now, and Adam has wide tastes; he likes Jeff Buckley and things like that.” Nor has Knowles pigeon-holed himself; if blues is his bailiwick, he’s also inspired by “English folk music, like Bert Jansch and [Jansch’s Pentangle guitar partner] John Renbourn” and classic soul singers (“Marvin Gaye and especially Ray Charles, who is just incredible and irreplaceable”).
All these elements come into play on ROLL AWAY, which was recorded at DAM Studios in Douglas, the principal city on the Isle of Man, with producer Dave Armstrong (whose credits include fellow Manx music export and renowned songbird Christine Collister). It’s a powerful set, full of stirring blues, bruising rockers and affecting minor-key ballads, that marks Back Door Slam’s as one of the year’s most stunning arrivals. “We wanted to make the record as raw as we could,” Knowles says. “Not too many overdubs. We tried our best to get a real live sound.
“We recorded the album on and off over the course of a year, as we were also doing gigs across the U.K., and in France. Some of the songs we’ve had kicking around for a year or more, so this album sort of provided ‘closure’ for a lot of the things we didn’t have a chance to record earlier.”
Among such songs is “Too Late,” whose arrangement alternates between a sparse acoustic-guitar sound and full-blown band dynamics. “That was the first proper song I wrote,” Knowles says with a laugh. “I was on holiday with my parents and didn’t have a guitar for two weeks, so I made friends with this French gypsy guy who hung out at the restaurant we ate at. He lent me his guitar, and I wrote that song.” Of more recent vintage is the somewhat folk-bluesy title track, which shares a similar genesis. “It’s the first song I wrote without a guitar,” Knowles adds. “I was out on a dog walk, and I just got the melody and all the lyrics. Then, I had to put the guitar to it when I got home.”
Roll Away addresses the dilemma, he says, of living in such a desirable but off-the-beaten-path locale as the Isle of Man (“Roll away/Maybe I’ll return to this island some day”): “It’s a beautiful place and so nice, but it’s also small and insular in its thinking in a way. I feel lucky to have grown up there, but you can’t forget there’s also a world out there beyond it.”
Other highlights of the program are the tough-riffed Outside Woman Blues (the album’s one track not written by Knowles), Come Home (“an older one, kind of my first attempt to write a big electric blues”) and Heavy on My Mind, which suggests the muscular amplified style of Albert King. “That’s a funny one, actually,” says Knowles. “We were staying at our manager’s house, and it was the creepiest house, with a graveyard and an old battlefield next to it. The line ‘My mind is playing tricks on me,’ came from walking around that house. You know how [in a spooky place] you know there’s nothing there, but you keep looking behind yourself anyway to see if someone’s following you? It was like that.”
Stay addresses a more serious subject: the death of Back Door Slam’s rhythm guitarist, Brian Garvey, and another friend, in a car accident in 2004. “It just devastated us,” Knowles recalls. “It took a long time to come to terms with that. Writing Stay was a kind of therapy for us.”
As much as the band enjoyed recording its debut long-player, playing live is “definitely where it’s at,” says Knowles. “It’s all I ever wanted to do: go on tour and keep playing.” Which is what Back Door Slam has been doing since arriving on U.S. soil in March, 2007. On their first SxSW stop (they returned there this year), they ran into a fellow artist with Isle of Man connections. “We got to meet Pete Townshend,” Davy enthuses. “He was really nice and took time to speak with us. He went to school on the Isle of Man for a bit, and I think he’s still got relatives there.”
The hook-up with the Who man further underscores just how far the young trio has come in such a short time. Back Door Slam have now appeared on television’s CBS Early Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live and performed on the same bill with The Who, as well as with Don McLean, George Thorogood and blues legend Buddy Guy. It’s not at all unlikely that their live performances and those on the 11 tracks that comprise the ROLL AWAY album will wind up affecting music fans just as deeply as “Sultans of Swing” touched Davy Knowles. A tradition continues.
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