British blues-rock band Back Door Slam is on a roll

by Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

26 March 2008


One thing Davy Knowles has learned in the last year: Things usually don’t happen this quickly for a blues-rock band from the Isle of Man.

In 2007, Knowles, then 19, and a “terrified” Back Door Slam turned up in Austin, Texas, one of 1,400 bands showcasing their wares over four nights at the South By Southwest Music Conference.

Back Door Slam latest in a long line of young blues-rock artists The young men in Isle of Man group Back Door Slam unexpectedly jumped into the limelight with their first CD, just like several teenage blues artists in the 1990s. Here is a look at what has happened to four of the most prominent blues players since their initial splash a decade ago. JONNY LANG (born Jon Gordon Langseth Jr. on Jan. 29, 1981, in Fargo, N.D.) - Lang, who started playing guitar at 12 after his father took him to see the Bad Medicine Blues Band, released his first album, “Smokin’,” in 1995 under the name Kid Jonny Lang & The Big Bang. The guitarist-singer’s solo debut, “Lie to Me,” which came out in January 1997, won him a national audience. Though Lang dazzled with rapid-fire licks and technique, his music was faulted for being emotionally stunted, something Lang remedied with his Grammy Award-nominated late 1998 CD, “Wander This World,” which tapped into soul, funk and rock. Lang’s music then took an unexpected turn with 2003’s religiously inspired rock and pop CD “Long Time Coming.” (Lang and his wife, actress Haylie Johnson, whom he married on June 8, 2001, are devout Christians). The disc earned Lang some of his worst reviews. However, the follow-up, a 2006 gospel-influenced rock and blues disc called “Turn Around,” won marginally better reviews - and the Grammy for Best Rock Or Rap Gospel Album. KENNY WAYNE SHEPHERD (born Kenny Wayne Brobst Jr. on June 12, 1977, in Shreveport, La.) - This self-taught guitarist began playing at age 7, learning Muddy Waters licks from his father’s record collection and developing a sound influenced by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King, Robert Cray and Duane Allman. His first album, 1995’s “Ledbetter Heights,” though criticized for emphasizing technique over soul, quickly racked up more than a half-million copies in sales, an unheard of number for a blues record. It also spent 20 weeks atop Billboard’s blues chart, and Guitar World magazine voted Shepherd the year’s No. 3 player, after B.B. King and Eric Clapton. The follow-up, “Trouble Is ...,” released in 1998, earned a Grammy nomination, but was knocked by critics for being somewhat predictable. Shepherd’s playing became more nuanced and less indulgent on two subsequent albums - 1999’s “Live On” and 2004’s “The Place You’re In” (with the guitarist doing most of the singing for the first time). But neither matched the impact of his debut. (He was engaged to fellow blues guitarist Shannon Curfman and in rehab during some of the time between discs.) However, Shepherd, who married Mel Gibson’s only daughter, Hannah, in September 2006, hit an artistic peak with last year’s “10 Days Out (Blues from the Backroads),” the soundtrack to a documentary about his 2004 trip into the American South to work with such revered blues players as Henry Townsend, Etta Baker, Pinetop Perkins and Henry Gray. It was Grammy-nominated for the Best Traditional Blues Album. SHANNON CURFMAN (born July 31, 1985, in Fargo, N.D.) - The home-schooled blues-rock guitarist-singer caused a big stir in 1999, when at age 14 she released her first album, “Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions,” which featured fellow Fargo native Lang both as a player and songwriter. But fans of Curfman’s deep, robust voice and fiery fretwork had to wait until late last year for a follow-up, the hard-rock oriented “Fast Lane Addiction” (more Nickelback and Pat Benatar, less Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, opined one music writer). The reasons for the eight-year gap, according to a November 2007 Minneapolis Star Tribune interview: “unfinished demos, record-company nowhereland and a personal life that attracted rumors the way car accidents attract lawyers.” Curfman was engaged to Shepherd from 2001 to 2003 (they broke up while he was in rehab for the second time), and in 2006 she started her own label, Purdy Records. Currently she is expecting her first child (her manager, Dave Niemela, is the father). SEAN COSTELLO (born April 16, 1979, in Philadelphia) - In 1994, when he was all of 14, this primarily self-taught Atlanta-bred musician, who received his first guitar for his ninth birthday, won the Beale Street Blues Society’s talent award. Two years later, he issued his debut album, “Call the Cops,” establishing himself as more than just a Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabe. Before the release of his second solo album, 2000’s “Cuttin’ In,” he had attracted further notice by playing on Susan Tedeschi’s hit CD, “Just Won’t Burn,” and backing her on tour. “Cuttin’ In,” which Costello spotlighted during a terrific performance at the 2000 Lehigh Valley Blues and Jazz festival in Pennsylvania, earned the guitarist-singer-songwriter a W.C. Handy Award nomination for “Best New Artist Debut.” “Moanin’ for Molasses,” released in 2001, won even more raves for its mesh of blues, R&B and soul and Costello’s classy, crisp, and succinct solos. “Sean Costello,” released in late 2004, veered away from blues into soul, funk and hard rock (he now calls it “a lackluster release”). But Costello’s latest, “We Can Get Together,” released on Feb. 18, has been greeted with kudos such as “a gritty powerhouse of steaming `70s-style R&B and hard-charging funk blues.”

“We were out of our comfort zone,” says the guitarist-singer-songwriter. “We had been gigging on the Isle of Man for a long time, and now we were in Austin at South By Southwest competing for an audience. It was quite amazing - and nerve wracking.

“Our first gig was in a little Irish pub (B.D. Riley’s) that was absolutely packed. We went on after (California country-roots band) Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and had to cart our gear through this packed place.”

Back Door Slam was a big hit, playing Knowles’ zesty originals and covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” and John Hiatt’s “Ridin’ With the King,” and the enthusiastic reaction proved a harbinger. The power trio, which includes 21-year-old drummer Ross Doyle and 20-year-old bassist Adam Jones, has since opened for the likes of Styx, Don McLean, REO Speedwagon, The Who and Corinne Bailey Rae.

“It’s unbelievable how far we’ve come,” says Knowles, a day after playing at this year’s SxSW. “It feels so great. Actually, we’re relieved that after a year, we’re still doing it.”

Back Door Slam (named for the Robert Cray song) has built its U.S. fan base largely through extensive touring, and on its latest trek is unveiling a new song, a “really, really happy gospelly blues thing,” called “Tear Down the Walls.” But the group’s debut, “Roll Away,” released last June, also has contributed to a surge in popularity.

“We wanted to try to get that live sound we developed after two years of playing and songwriting,” says Knowles. “It was (intended as) a snapshot of what we were about.”

Knowles was born and raised on the Isle of Man, a 32-mile-long and 8-to-15-mile wide territory off the northwest coast of England, opposite Liverpool, and the northeast coast of Ireland, near Belfast, at the geographical center of the British Isles.

Knowles first determined to become a musician when he was about 12. He was riding in a car with his father, a deep-sea diver who did everything from archaeological exploration to undersea welding on oil rigs in the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s, when he heard Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” “I said to myself, `I gotta learn to play guitar,’” recalls Knowles. (Has Knowles met Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler? “Not yet,” he replies. “I’d be like a giddy schoolgirl if I did.”)

Knowles then came under the spell of “Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton,” the 1966 album widely acknowledged as one of the most influential in blues-rock history. When he heard the Bluesbreakers’ cover of Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” “The tone of (Clapton’s) playing, the fire he had, I was taken with that,” Knowles remembers.

When he was 13, Knowles and some school chums formed an instrumental blues band, Out of the Blue, which lasted about six months. For the next couple of years he played in Roadhouse, “with all these guys that were my dad’s age. They were in their 50s, and they were way better than me. I figured I could learn from them.”

After his gig with Roadhouse ended, Knowles played with Isle of Man singer-songwriter Barry Nelson. “I progressed from 12-bar blues to songs with a bit more complex structure,” he says. “We played John Hiatt stuff, and even went across to England on a few occasions.”

About four years ago, Knowles decided he wanted to sing and write his own material, so he hooked up with school friend Doyle - “We were in math class when I asked him to join up” - bassist Jamie Armstrong, who would drop out to attend university, paving the way for Jones, and rhythm guitarist Brian Garvey, who died in a car crash in 2004 and was not replaced.

Knowles favorite tune on “Roll Away” is “Stay,” written for Garvey and another friend who died in an auto accident. “I saw them every day. They lived five minutes walking distance from me,” says Knowles wistfully.

One of his earliest songwriting efforts, the Bad Company-tinged “Too Late,” made it on to “Roll Away.”

“I wrote it when I was 15 or 16 on holiday in Gran Canaria (the third largest of the Canary Islands),” says Knowles. “I didn’t bring a guitar, so I went hunting for a guitar shop. I met a French Gypsy who hung out at the hotel - I think he fancied my sister, so he let me borrow his guitar.”

Knowles sounds most like his heroes, Clapton and the late Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher, on “Come Home,” arguably “Roll Away’s” strongest cut. “I’m proud of that song,” says Knowles. “I was 17, messing about one day and the riff happened.”

And he and Back Door Slam work a bit of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voodoo on “Heavy on My Mind.” “We were staying at our manager’s in Nottingham,” says Knowles of the song’s inspiration. “It’s one of the creepiest places ever, across the street from a 14th-century church with a graveyard and near an old battlefield where 8,000 people got slaughtered. Me and Ross got really drunk one night and and at 3 in the morning we went looking for ghosts.”

So, how is Knowles handling his sudden recognition?

“I take it with a pinch of salt,” he says. “We don’t crave massive success, but we want to make a living out of it. We also are wary of comparisons. You have to stay conscious and do your own thing.”

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