Davy Knowles is ballsy, I’ll give him that. As a guitar God in the making — a primo shredder and an inventive improviser — he’s choosing to ply his trade in one of the most limiting blues-rock formats of all: the power trio. And he’s making it convincing, believe it or not, even if he can’t quite escape the familiar power trio trappings of hook/guitar excursion/hook for long enough to sell you on the idea that it’s still juicy. Keep trying, son. You share more than one quality with Stevie Ray Vaughan, including that you can make even the hoariest blues cliches sound interesting.
The Isle of Man-bred Knowles is still in his early 20s, and according to the story, he was 11 when he heard Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”, which planted the seed for a love of guitar and a further investigation into various blues modes in his teenage years. He’s parlayed that love, and a richly satisfying command of several different blues and rock guitar styles, into an affable stage presence that at first suggests deep love and respect for the music, second suggests he knows what he’s doing with that music, and third suggests that with better songs and a more varied approach, his appeal will rise in tandem with his technical prowess and professionalism. It’s the old story, writ large: get this kid and his trio some smoking, A-level material and you’ll see real fireworks.
Back Door Slam’s latest album, Coming Up For Air, doesn’t get to that blues-rock nirvana, but it advances the ball. And judging by the tightly packed, near sold out crowd at the Bowery Ballroom, Knowles isn’t losing a shred of momentum as he seeks to solidify Back Door Slam’s presence in the states.
The Bowery set included dutiful airings of Air’s best material, including rockers like “Tear Down The Walls” and the title track. It’s disingenuous to call Air slick, but hearing the songs explored live offered further evidence that in focusing on craft, Knowles and producer Peter Frampton diluted some of the rawness found in Knowles and Back Door Slam’s earlier efforts. Edges filed down? Not quite, but not as pointed and unrefined as they were. Knowles likes to deliver songs with comfortable hooks and easy progressions, and then dismantle them with guitar pyrotechnics that err psychedelic, jazzy, Delta-bluesy and arena-rockish depending on mood, so things on Air feel just a little too cut and dry.
It’s been good to observe how Knowles and Back Door Slam have varied their sets in the past two years. Time on the festival circuit and high profile tours opening for the likes of Gov’t Mule and Jeff Beck have been well spent. Knowles seems to put greater faith in his originals these days instead of falling back on well-tread covers to keep the interest level high. Two years ago, his version of Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Almost Cut My Hair” would have been the showpiece jam; at the Bowery, it was kind of an afterthought, delivered with aplomb but far less interesting than either of the songs that preceded or succeeded it.
Knowles fared much better, in fact, with Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”, the oft-covered psychedelic blues warhorse that’s right in his wheelhouse. Back Door Slam played it fairly straight and Knowles didn’t mess with the verses at all, but he teed up his improvisational passages slowly and deliberately, building different ideas and leveraging pregnant pauses that didn’t let the song descend into guitar squall — a common misstep when covering Neil — too early. (Would love to hear, in fact, what Knowles would do with “Cowgirl in the Sand”). That’s something Knowles has borrowed from the Jeff Beck school of guitar deity heroics: the unhurried navigation of solos that have just enough heart to avoid being cerebral, and just enough technical prowess to avoid being a boneheaded shredfest.
Sometimes that deliberate pace gets the better of him. The version of “Red House” on Back Door Slam’s Live At Bonnaroo album, for example, would be an “A” instead of an “A-minus” had Knowles reined it in about two minutes earlier, and he did the same thing with an overly protracted “Messin With the Kid” at the Bowery. But as the show wound down, the high points lingered: enough variation to sustain a headlining spot, enough guitar acrobatics to deliver a fix, and enough heart and humility from Knowles to make him seem accessible. As a player and frontman, he’s the full package and the genuine article, and his best music awaits.