Listen closely to Davy Knowles and hear the influence of the British Islands: David Gilmour, early Jimmy Page, Richard Thompson and the great Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher. Knowles is a masterful guitarist but he doesn’t overplay his instrument, instead weaving vintage tones with an organ and a rhythm section to create tasteful, mind-blowing sonic journeys.
He’s a half-century late to be a part of the British Invasion – at 29 years old – but is a sensational representative nonetheless. Imagine his arrival being delayed due to his slow means of transportation. Soaking in the experience, Knowles and his father took seven-hour jaunts on a 24-foot sailboat from the Isle of Man to Northern Ireland.
“Dad was a purist,” Knowles said. “He didn’t want to turn the engine on. You are much more likely to spill your drink that way.”
The Isle of Man is about 12-by-28 miles long and is inhabited by only 80,000 people, most whom live in the capital city, Douglas. Music is an integral part of the lifestyle. “It’s a gorgeous place but we’ve only one mountain, not at all like Tahoe. You can walk to the top of it, and there’s a café there.”
That part of the world has what Knowles calls “a pub culture,” and he started performing in pubs when he was 14 years old. Just five years later, he was playing on tour in the United States.
Knowles, who still considers himself more of a music fan than a musician, explored his father’s extensive record collection and then, with his sister, the Isle of Man’s music stores and thrift-store bins. Dad took him to a Robert Cray concert and he discovered the blues.
Knowles was part of a band named after a Cray song (written by Bonnie and Robert Hayes), Back Door Slam, which went on two major U.S. tours.
“I’d always dreamed it’s coming to the states to play music,” Knowles told Tahoe Onstage. “It’s where the music I fell in love with came from, whether it was interpreted by the Brits again or in its raw form. I quickly realized that this is where I need to be.”
The other Back Door Slam “lads,” however, didn’t want to live full-time in the States and the group disbanded. (Bassist Adam Jones now lives in London and has a band, Scarlet Parade, and drummer Ross Doyle is back at the Isle of Man.) At age 22, Knowles moved permanently to Chicago, and that has nothing to do with the city’s blues tradition.
“It was a typical musician’s story: I met a girl (who lives in Chicago),” Knowles said.
That’s not to say Knowles doesn’t appreciate the Windy City’s storied history. Remember, he’s a musicologist. Inspired by pioneering bluesmen such as Charlie Patton, Bukka White and Blind Boy Fuller, Knowles recorded a six-song EP, “1932,” to be released in April. Each of the songs is recorded on a 1932 National guitar.
“I think it’s important to always push yourself and try different things and learn different things,” Knowles said. “I certainly learned quite a lot with ‘1932.’ It’s a fun thing to immerse yourself in a different sound for a little while.
Knowles bought the guitar when he was on his first U.S. tour, and said he has played it at almost every show since. He also uses a beat-up 1966 Fender Telecaster, a 1963 Gibson Melody Maker and a more modern Martin acoustic.
“They go everywhere with me all the time,” Knowles said. “I like the tone, the feel and, it’s really vain, but I think a huge part of it is the look. I grew up watching people like Rory Gallagher using these vintage Fenders and that’s what you aspire to play yourself one day — the same stuff your heroes play. They just have a sound and a feel all their own. The new ones don’t feel the same to me.”
While he may not be a household name yet, Knowles is well known to musicians. Joe Satriani calls Knowles his favorite modern blues guitarist, and Knowles toured with Jeff Beck. A few years ago, Knowles visited the jam-band world and played with former Grateful Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in a band called the Rhythm Devils.
Taking a page from the jam-band’s philosophical songbook, Knowles records each of his shows and posts the cream of the crop on his website page “Official Bootlegs.”
“We are releasing the best-of every month,” he said. “It forces us to keep fresh and try different things. It’s in the Gov’t Mule ‘Mule Tracks’ kind of vein.
On the cover of Knowles’ most recent studio album, “Three Miles From Avalon,” a sailor with a guitar is depicted in rough seas heading toward a lighthouse. The music is blues-based rock sung by Knowles in a low tone that contrasts to his speaking voice. The album ends with a superb song “What In The World,” a more than 10-minute jam reminiscent of Pink Floyd. The organ is featured as much of the guitar.
Knowles, who has a West Coast tour from March 22-April 1 before playing the Byron Bay Blues Fest in Australia, performs in a quartet.
“I feel (the organ is) really vital to the sound playing some of these songs live,” he said. “Andrew Toombs is such a fab player and he adds so much to it. I think too much guitar can wear on people. Sometimes you need another sound in there to really help things out.
“You’ve got to serve the song, right? I mean, I’m always going to play a little bit of the guitar but I think the song comes first. If you are just writing to have a guitar solo, maybe you’re writing for the wrong reasons. I think it’s whatever each individual song dictates. Sometimes a little burst of guitar playing rather than elongated things is a bit more effective.”
- Davy Knowles West Coast Tour
March 22 – Phoenix, The Rhythm Room
March 23 – Las Vegas, MGM
March 24 – Los Angeles, The Mint
March 25 – Arcadia, Arcadia Blues Clug
March 26 – Santa Cruz, Moe’s Alley
March 28 – Mill Valley, Sweetwater Music Hall
March 29 – Napa, Blue Note Napa
March 30 – San Francisco, Biscuits & Blues
March 31 – Red Room, Crystal Bay
April 1 – Sutter Creek, Sutter Creek Theatre