Every so often a truly explosive, blues-steeped star comes slamming down the pike. The ‘60s were filled with acts from Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page but each generation has since added to the legacy. Think of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Susan Tedeschi, Warren Haynes and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Now think of Davy Knowles. Think long and hard and toast a bright future. Fronting his band Back Door Slam, the 22-year-old British phenomenon with an encyclopedic grasp of blues-rock draws on influences from Robert Johnson to Rory Gallagher, gives it a fresh Celtic feel along the way. As a songwriter, Knowles puts the muscle back into the blues but also offers a progressive, folk-bluesy slant in the brilliant new album, Coming Up for Air. And it doesn’t hurt that the Grammy-winning Peter Frampton produced it.
“This music gives you a freedom to express yourself,’’ says Knowles, who hails from Britain’s Isle of Man. “With blues and with roots-based music as a whole, and with folk music, too, you can bend it any way you like. You can call B.B. King ‘blues’ but a lot of people will also call John Mayer ‘blues.’ It’s just the way you express it.’’
Just listen to the album’s first single, “Tear Down the Walls,’’ where Davy doesn’t just tear the walls down, he batters them down. “The song is how you just have to sometimes fight through hard times,’’ he says of such lyrics as “storm through the barricades.’’
“Davy is very young but he already has got a recognizable style. He’s definitely the gunslinger guitarist of the 21st century,’’ says Frampton. “What a thrill it was to work with him. I feel rejuvenated. He’s a phenomenal talent. He knows just what he’s doing and where he wants to go and what he wants to sound like. I just guided him and gave him ideas and shared my experience, but he brought it all to life.’’
Davy, in turn, was humbled to work with an artist like Frampton, who also contributed some guitar and bass playing. “Peter was very generous with his time and effort,’’ he notes. “He said to me, ‘A lot of people will tell you a lot of things in the music industry. But one thing you should do is trust your intuition.’ ’’
Knowles’ trust in himself pays dividends on the new disc. His sensually raw voice is influenced by some of his favorites like Joe Cocker (“the Woodstock-era Cocker,’’ Davy says), John Mayall and Paul Rodgers (“when he was with Free more than Bad Company’’). And his guitar work merges the barroom blast of Warren Haynes with the lightning-quick filigree of Eric Clapton. And, no, we’re not exaggerating.
Davy is coming off a spring tour opening for Jeff Beck (“Playing with people of that caliber, you have to up your game,’’ he says). He performed the shows solo while Back Door Slam was in transition after parting ways with bassist Adam Jones and drummer Ross Doyle in 2008. Davy is pleased to see that lineup celebrated in a new concert disc, Live From Bonnaroo, taken from their 2008 Bonnaroo show.
“I think it was the best show we ever did,’’ he says. The proof is in their original songs from their first album, 2007’s Roll Away as well as vividly reworked covers of Hendrix’s “Red House’’ and – surprise – David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair,’’ which prompted an email from David Crosby himself. “He wrote that he really loved our version. I’m never deleting that email!’’ Davy says gleefully.
Knowles first got bitten by music when, at age 11, his dad put on Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.’’ He recalls, “That made me want to play.’’ And by plundering his dad’s records, along with an older sister’s Blues Collection magazines which came with cassette tapes, Davy was able to hear everyone from Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters onward. He soon grew to love Cocker (“my mom grew up in his same town of Sheffield and she’d bump into Joe’s mom all the time’’) and, especially Rory Gallagher, who blew Knowles away. “Just the energy that man had was unbelievable,’’ he says. “What I loved was that he came from a Celtic background like I did and I could hear it. He could express his roots in the music and I never realized I could do that, too, until I heard him.’’
Life took another fateful turn when Davy’s dad took him to see Robert Cray at age 16. “I loved it and thought, ‘I want to be doing this. Why aren’t I on stage?’ ’’ More recently, Knowles realized a dream by playing a benefit in San Francisco with Cray’s bassist and drummer. “Five, six years ago I was watching those people, and now I’m on stage with them,’’ he beams. The name Back Door Slam even comes from a Cray song title. He has had various incarnations of the group since he was 16.
After landing the same IOM-based management that guided Grammy-nominated Corinne Bailey Rae, Back Door Slam released two EPs and concert DVD on the in-house label, and then emerged internationally in 2007, first attracting attention at SXSW Festival in Austin (“I heard the spirit of Jimi Hendrix,’’ wrote critic Patrick MacDonald in the Seattle Times), and then by touring incessantly in the USA. Their debut album Roll Away was released in June 2007 on Blix Street Records, an indie label that has also released CDs by Eva Cassidy. “I like it that I’m not on a blues-only label. That limits you,’’ says Knowles.
Above all, Davy can’t be pigeonholed. The new, Frampton-produced studio disc is a strong case in point. Knowles was in between bandmates, so Frampton plugged the gap by suggesting drummer Fritz Lewak and bassist Kevin McCormick for the studio. “I was in a coffee shop and got a call from Peter, who said, ‘I think I found some guys. They’re in Jackson Browne’s band.’ I nearly dropped my coffee. They were amazing--we really hit it off. We knocked out 8 songs in 4 days.’’ Says Frampton: “I wanted Davy to walk into a situation with a ready-made rhythm section that had played together before. I didn’t want them to sound like a session band.’’ Frampton then added keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers for authentic, bluesy- psychedelic organ riffs. “When I suggested Benmont, I think Davy dropped his coffee again,’’ says Frampton. “But Benmont worked on 7 tracks in three-and-a-half hours and his playing on every one was fresh. I’ve always been a huge fan of his.’’
The new album kicks off with the title track, “Coming Up for Air.’’ It was inspired by a Stevie Ray Vaughan interview that Knowles read where Stevie talked “about picking yourself up from the bootstraps, but the bootstraps are broken’’ and a George Orwell novel by the same title, “Coming Up for Air.’’ Adds Davy: “It’s a story about slugging away.’’
Knowles plucks imagery from everywhere. The rock gem “Riverbed’’ has a wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time message sparked by a story of an Amtrak train that went off the rails into the Mississippi River many years ago. The slinky “Mistakes’’ and the haunting “Amber’s Song” lament a lost love, while “Hear Me Lord’’ is a majestic treatment of a George Harrison song from the latter’s hit album All Things Must Pass. Knowles says he must have listened to that record “a million times.’’ Stately backup vocals are added by Frampton, Christine Collister and Christie DeHaven. “I told Davy that if you love it, you should do it,’’ says Frampton, who played on the original version by Harrison.
So well did Knowles get along with Frampton that they co-wrote two of the new songs, namely the sultry blues ballad “You Can’t Take This Back’’ and the relentless, dueling guitar-driven “Keep on Searching.’’ Davy originally met Frampton through a Nashville musician friend, Jamie Rounds. Davy furthered his connections there by writing the new “Saving Myself’’-- featuring Knowles on a 1934 National Guitar--with Nashville’s Gary Nicholson. And the album ends with bonus track “Taste of Danger,’’ a climactic duet written by and performed with Jonatha Brooke.
Clearly, the new disc shows Knowles experimenting with styles that borrow from the greats but don’t get bogged down there. “I want to do this until the day I die,’’ Davy says. “You’ve got to progress and keep moving on.’’ To which Frampton adds, “I see a long career for him.’’