The thing about blues-rock is, it’s so easy and comfortable. It resides at a safe and relaxed distance from the sharecropper’s fields and ghetto clubs it emerged from decades ago; the agony and darkness implied by its familiar chord progressions and scales is hardly reflected in the lives of the music’s mostly white, middle-aged, male audience. It doesn’t challenge me with innovation, it doesn’t ask me to dance, it doesn’t demand that I step outside what is expected of me. So when I walked into The Low Beat on Monday night to see British guitar hero Davy Knowles, it was like entering the lodge of a harmless secret society I sometimes forget I’m a part of – there we all were, the 25-55 year old, friendly, heterosexual Caucasian males of the Albany area. We all wore our uniform of jeans and t-shirts, ordered a draft beer, and settled in for a boring and predictable night of music with one eye on the hockey game on TV above the bar.[i]
I know our culture reached a tipping point about seventy years ago where the term “art” became synonymous with “originality,” but I will argue that comfortable and predictable does not mean bad. There is inspired art that is traditional and derivative. Technology offers us this historically unique ability to listen to and watch B.B. King play “The Thrill Is Gone” over and over again, across barriers of time and space and even death. Our ability to hear traditional styles of music used to be dependent on the guitar player from our town or neighborhood learning the music from an elder. Each new generation got to be the one transmitting the blues to their audience anew. Now we have to ask ourselves the question: why should I go see 28-year-old Davy Knowles do “The Thrill Is Gone” at a local bar, when I can sit on my couch and hear B.B. King play in 1953, when the blues was at its emerging, exciting apex?
My answer is because there is an esoteric value in it. To watching a young man like Knowles take up the torch, master his craft, subtly change and re-interpret the familiar, keeps the music alive in a way a roll of film or even an old ’45 cannot. The music is powerful and vital, inside this person, holding that guitar, in this bar, right now.
Knowles is a guitar prodigy from The Isle of Mann who apparently heard the song “Sultans of Swing” at age eleven, and picked up his dad’s guitar and taught himself to play by ear.[ii] He emerged into public consciousness with the band Back Door Slam about seven years ago, and opened for Peter Frampton and Government Mule since going solo. His guitar licks and knack for songwriting are undeniable, and his backing band is excellent.
He started things off with the single “Tear Down the Walls” off his 2009 album Coming Up For Air, an original rock tune that demonstrates his ability to write big riffs and catchy hooks. He would later play his new single, “The Outsider,” from the album of the same name released last year.
His set was polished, with songs transitioning quickly into one another, hitting the audience with a constant stream of intense sound. The band’s presentation of some more complex compositions, like the song “Coming Up For Air,” or “Ain’t No Grave (Can Hold Me Down),” were fantastic, with rhythmic intros and outros full of splashy cymbals and varying tones:
That slide guitar sounds awful good, doesn’t it?
Davy Knowles is currently in the midst of a North American tour. Listen to and purchase his music, which also includes celtic folk songs that weren’t really part of his performance Monday night, on his website.
Opening up for Knowles were local trio Sly Fox and the Hustlers, another band entrenched in a blues-rock tradition, though their sound was less Chicago-to-UK rock and more delta-style grit with strong, funky baselines and driving beats. Songs like “Don’t Slow Me Down,” call on the raw, messy charisma of classic Rolling Stones (especially with the backing horns in the recorded version). Recently voted best blues-rockers in the area by Metroland, you can hear their music at their website or catch them playing at local venues through the summer.
[i] I am proud of myself for getting through this paragraph without using the term “sausage fest.” It took a lot of restraint on my part. I mean, the bartender was almost the only non-male in attendance, and there was a point in the night when she started giving out free hot dogs.