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Return of the Guitar God: Back Door Slam can't drink, but they can shred 

click to enlarge The blues never looked so young.
  • The blues never looked so young.
The blues never looked so young.It's morning here in Bend, but "tea time" on the Isle of Man, a small self-governing kingdom in the Irish Sea that Davy Knowles calls home, and he's talking about his age, and why it seems to be the only thing anyone wants to discuss about the emerging blues guitar prodigy and his band, Back Door Slam.

"We want to be seen as good musicians full stop and not because of our age. I understand the sentiment, but it's kind of a back-handed compliment when somebody says, 'you're really good for your age,'" Knowles says in a delightfully articulate accent.

But when you're 20-year-olds and playing the moaning, sliding, and often soaring licks that have become the trademark of legendary musicians three times your age, people are going to talk about you. And they're sure as hell going to talk about your age. Knowles is hardly bent out of shape about the constant comments about his youth, but perhaps he should be a little pissed off. After all, he's not just good for a 20-year-old shaggy haired kid, he's good for anybody, any age, with any kind of hair.

Not to get too stuck on this whole age issue, but Back Door Slam (the band got their name from a Robert Cray song title) gives further raise to the eyebrow when one realizes that the band isn't merely Knowles backed by some middle-aged studio session hired guns, but rather a trio of 20-year-olds. In a time when kids their age are donning girls' jeans, eyeliner and pounding out stripped down rock, Knowles and company are playing authentic blues rock that could pass as new twenty or maybe even 30 years ago.

Rumblings of Knowles' wunderkind status had reached the States by early 2007, but there wasn't much Back Door Slam buzz until the spring when the band played their first U.S. gig at Austin's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference & Festival (better known as SXSW). The trio packed the cozy B.D. Riley's Irish Pub with Knowles' hot-burning notes attracting additional bodies that crammed the sidewalk outside the joint. The buzz spring boarded them onto a U.S. tour and fueled radio airplay. They were also the beneficiaries of thumbs to the sky reviews for their record, Roll Away.

"The only problem was that we weren't 21 and so we couldn't go out and watch any of the other bands. We did our gig at about 9, then went back to the hotel and had an early night. It was the most un-rock and roll thing ever," Knowles recalls, continuing to say that he's pretty stoked to legally (at least by US standards) down a pint this coming April.

But sitting on the sidelines after their coming-out show didn't sour the boys on SXSW. If it wasn't for that gig, they may not have had the chance to open for The Who, like they did last May. And they might not be touring the states nonstop, like they're doing again this winter, starting with a gig supported by local bluesters Smokin' Trainwreck on Monday night at the Domino Room.

As evidenced by the tracks on Roll Away, Back Door Slam plays rock-heavy blues that's remarkable (perhaps more so because of the age thing) in the chops that hang from Knowles' guitar and seep down to Adam Jones' walking bass and Ross Doyle's punchy drums, but pretty much typical blues fodder in all other respects. And although the record isn't groundbreaking from a songwriting angle, there's still some pleasure to be had from digging into Knowles' solos, not to mention his robust Stevie Ray Vaughn-style vocals.

Knowles is thankful for the positive reviews the album has garnered, but insists that Back Door Slam is best heard live.

"It's always been about the live show, that's where the adrenaline is, that's where you get your kick," Knowles says, "I love every second of it."

While on tour the band plays a good helping of tunes from Roll Away, but they toss in covers here and there, including "Red House," made famous by none other than, oh jeez, what's the guy's name - black dude, lit his guitar on fire? - of yeah, Jimi friggin' Hendrix. Typically a 20-year-old playing Hendrix is the groundwork for a disastrous campus talent show performance - but Knowles pays his idol respect with a blazing, and largely accurate, rendition of the bluesy standard.

In watching Knowles on stage (check out some videos for proof) it's hard not to see a little Clapton, a little Vaughan, and a lot of Hendrix in his style. And it makes you think that maybe what music needs these days is a real live guitar hero - and who cares if he's probably younger than you.


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