There’s a great moment from an audience video shot last October at the Rock ’n Roots fest in Amsterdam of Joe Satriani, Sonny Landreth and Davy Knowles gang-tackling the old blue-rock warhorse “I’m Going Down,” one of those easy-to-rehearse standby numbers that gets festival showcase guitarists together onstage for last-encore artillery practice.
After a couple of verses, Satriani turns the spotlight over to Landreth, who peels off a gruesomely beautiful and utterly incomprehensible slide solo, chittering and screeching and yowling with blackened mystic ferocity. Satriani leans over to Knowles and says something, and they both crack up.
“I have to confess,” Knowles told us last week, “we’d just polished off a good bottle-and-a-half of wine before we did that. I don’t think it affected Joe at all, but it may have affected me a bit. But during Sonny’s solo, Joe leans over to me and says ‘Aw man, I’ve got no idea what to play after that!’ “And as soon as he said that, I had this thought in my head, ‘I’ve got no idea what I’m even doing up here with these guys.’” Knowles, of course, absolutely hammered his 24 bars, and there probably wasn’t a single audience member who went home that night doubting that the 23-year-old guitarist belonged in that company.
But maybe it’s little surprise after all. Ever since Knowles and his original Back Door Slam released their debut Roll Away in 2007, the British guitarist/ singer has been foisted as the heir apparent of the blues guitar-hero mantle. Disbanding the original trio, reforming and moving to Chicago (where else?), Knowles now has an impressive solo CD to his name (2009’s Coming Up For Air), and at this point, the world is this guy’s oyster. Chops aplenty, a maturing sense of nuance and old-soul vocals make this kid the complete package, two generations removed from the days of Alexis Korner and John Mayall and the heralded procession of guitarists bred from that pedigree.
It’s not always easy carrying that thing around.
We asked Knowles about his solo acoustic 2009 opening slot on Jeff Beck’s tour, the kind of gig that might make any young guitarist trying to simultaneously embrace and not get strangled by the plaudits and praise, or wither under the weight of expectation and awesome tradition.
“One thing I’ve found hanging around the few musicians of that sort of caliber is that you tend to be more intimidated by the legend,” he says. “You find that that they’re just a person and you spend your time trying to see what they’re actually doing, and when you look at it like that, it gets to be more relaxed, you know? Plus, you’re up there trying to do your job and what you’re there for, and trying to stay focused on that.”
Knowles makes an appearance this weekend at the Boulder Theater as a ringer with the Pearl St. All Stars, a gig he managed to land when he struck up a friendship with Funky Meters bassist and All Star regular George Porter Jr. on a jam cruise, while Knowles was holding down the guitar seat with The Rhythm Devils.
The Rhythm Devils? Davy Knowles playing Dead tunes?
“You know, I have to say, I didn’t really understand it when I first started listening to … y’know, the long, long pieces. ‘Dark Star,’ ‘Terrapin,’ all of that. But my tour manager Evan, who’s a huge Deadhead, said, ‘No, no, no, you have to listen to it, the live stuff,’ and once I really did, I saw the beauty in it.”
For Knowles, it’s really just another piece of the process of becoming … well, Davy Knowles. Who, by the way and by full intention, is not just a blues guitarist. For anyone who looks past the marquis, this is not such a great surprise — Coming Up For Air’s center of gravity is blues-favored mainstream rock, acoustic ballads, shades of Celtic folk. Stevie Ray Knowles this isn’t.
“This is something that’s always confused me. I will never forget the blues or blues music. I’m the biggest blues nut; I’m obsessive about it. It’s where I come from; it’s who I am. But I’ve always been a fan of songwriting … Irish songwriters, acoustic songwriters. And I tried to put a few things like [that] on Roll Away, and people still said, ‘Oh, this is a straight blues record,’ and I’m thinking, ‘No, it’s really not.’ And I kinda got hold of that, and tried to do it again on Coming Up For Air, and people said, ‘Aw, you forgot your blues.’ … I actually think it was more bluesy than the first one, but fair enough …
“So, it’s a really scary thing. You don’t want to alienate yourself from it, but at the same time you can’t really figure out who you are just because some people say you ought to be playing straight blues all the time.”
On the Bill
Pearl St. All Stars play
the Boulder Theater on Saturday, Jan. 29. Show starts at 9 p.m.Must be
21 to enter. Liebermonster also plays.Tickets are $25. 2032 14th St.,