Davy Knowles is not technically from Britain, but he did grow up surrounded by it. A native son of the Isle of Man, the much-acclaimed blues-rocker was still in his teens when he started his first band, Back Door Slam, whose 2007 debut album Roll Away reached No. 7 on the Billboard magazine blues chart.
Over the next two years, the group played hundreds of shows — including Coachella, SXSW, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza — before its members moved on to pursue other projects.
For Knowles, that meant recording as a solo artist, sharing stages with the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Jeff Beck, and the Who, and becoming the first musician to play live directly to the International Space Station from Mission Control in Houston.
He also spent much of 2018 and 2019 out on the road performing the music of Rory Gallagher with the Irish blues-rock icon's original bandmates Gerry McAvoy and Ted McKenna.
Last October, Knowles released his fourth album, What Happens Next, accompanied by accolades from musicians like Joe Satriani, who calls Knowles his favorite modern bluesman, and Peter Frampton, who's described him as the gunslinger guitarist of the 21st century.
We recently checked in with Knowles to talk about Celtic rock, retro soul, and Britain's fascination with American blues.
Metro Times: You recorded What Happens Next with Eric Corne, who's also produced a dozen albums by Walter Trout and a half-dozen more by John Mayall. Did you have any preconceived notions, before you went into the studio, that changed while you were in there?
Davy Knowles: Well, I'm not sure that they changed. I'm a big fan of Eric's work and had been listening to a Walter Trout record he'd done that I really loved. Walter is a much more traditional blues artist than I am, but even though it was a very honest representation of him, it also had this kind of modern edge to it, without sounding contrived. And I was looking for that for this project. So, I mean, the preconceived notion was thinking that Eric would be able to bring something a little more contemporary to it, and he did entirely.
MT: The song "Hell to Pay" has kind of a retro-soul, Daptone Records vibe to it. Is that something you were going for?
Knowles: Oh, yeah. I've been a huge fan of Sharon Jones especially, and also Fantastic Negrito, folks that really have that soul element. So I just wanted to try and write in that style. And I was thinking, you know, "What would Sly Stone do with the vocal phrasing?" I've always loved his tune "If You Want Me to Stay," and that was in the back of my head. So it was kind of an experiment, I'd never written like that, but I've always loved listening to it. God knows I am none of those people, but I was still really happy with it.
MT: Tell us about the Band of Friends Tour with Gerry McAvoy and Ted McKenna. I'm guessing there's a big difference between listening to Rory Gallagher's music and actually playing it onstage alongside his old bandmates.Knowles: Oh, God, yeah. Working with Gerry and Ted, who we lost, and then Brendan [O'Neill] — who's also kind of Rory alumni — what an honor. And yes, it truly was an education. Just the onstage work ethic and the kind of energy that Gerry was putting out, and also expecting from the rest of us. It was this idea of pushing each other — you know, "come on, come on, come on!" — and not always in a gentle way. I think it's an old-school thing, and it really works. It's fabulous.
MT: From a guitarist's perspective, what is it like learning to play his music? What was distinctive about his style?Knowles: Well, the thing that always attracted me to Rory was the Celtic side of what he did. I grew up in a Celtic nation. I mean, I could see Ireland from the house I grew up in on a clear day. We are really close — and culturally far closer — to Ireland than we are to England. And so when I first heard Rory, I heard this fiery kind of bluesy rock. But then I keep listening and I'm going, Jesus Christ, it sounds like a jig or a reel that you would hear in the local pubs, right? All these Celtic inflections in his playing were so uniquely him. So I incorporated a lot of that into my playing.
And then, when you're learning parts that Rory had written or, you know, developed over years of playing those songs onstage, you understand just how unique he was. The way those lines are constructed — my fingers don't naturally want to do that — so it was very awkward. So it takes a while, and you just never, ever feel like you've totally gotten it.
MT: I once interviewed Rory Gallagher and he talked about how much he was influenced by Big Bill Broonzy, who at that point I'd never even heard of. Why do you think it is that people from the UK seem to know more about American blues than we do over here?
Knowles: Well, I think if you move to a foreign town — like I live in Chicago now, right? — you notice that people here don't go to the Millennium [Park] or other places like that. Because you're living here, so you don't bother. It's always there, and you can go another time, no worries. Whereas if you're just visiting, you make a huge effort. It's like, "We're going to do this, we're going to do that." And I think that, musically, it's kind of similar. People like me view American folk music as a very exotic and important thing that seems so distant.
I mean, I can recognize folk songs in Appalachia that started out in my neck of the woods, for sure. But I have got no point of reference for a Black man in the South in a god-awful prison. I have absolutely no reference for that. And so when you have something that you can't identify with, sometimes that pushes you to learn more about it, to study it, and — I don't know, "understand" is the wrong word — but certainly to appreciate it, for better or worse.
Davy Knowles performs on Saturday, June 25 at the Token Lounge; 28949 Joy Rd., Westland; 734-513-5030; tokenlounge.com. Doors at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.