A guitar howls through the streets of downtown Chattanooga just as the sun begins to set, pealing out an elaborately improvised solo pasted onto the end of “Red House.” The six-stringer, Back Door Slam’s Davy Knowles, has his wah-wah pedal pushed way down to make his Strat sing at the slightest flick of his pick.
YOUNG GUNS: Back Door Slam have been at it since they were 16, and Davy Knowles confesses that they’ve even covered “Free Bird.”
Although plenty of bands have covered this Hendrix staple, Back Door Slam — who will open for Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd Saturday at the Comcast Center — are investing it with rare power and authority. Besides, the tune’s a perfect closer for the “Bike Night” street fair they’re playing, and Knowles’s notes bounce off nearly as many parked Harleys, BMWs, Indians, and other bikes as they do bricks.
“Red House” and “It’ll All Come Around” have become the favored epic closers for the hundreds of sets the rocking blues-inspired trio have played across America since the release of their debut, Roll Away (Blix Street), in June 2007. The disc rambles as much as the band and their cramped van have, criss-crossing from heavy electric blowouts like the Cream-y “Outside Woman Blues” to the acoustic title track to the shimmering romantic ballad “Too Good for Me” to the bonus cut “Real Man,” which blends the kind of pick-and-strum chitlin-circuit licks that Hendrix perfected with the melodicism of Robert Cray.
Roll Away — which was recently followed by the release of several live covers on iTunes including “Red House” and the Cray tune that gave the band their name — sounds like the work of musicians from the Deep South, guys who grew up drinking the same muddy water as the Allman Brothers and the Skynyrd boys. But Back Door Slam are actually the latest scions of a British lineage that goes back to the ’60s, when John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, and a clutch of other groups squeezed the pulp of their American blues idols to produce a distinctive musical juice.
“It’s not like we consider ourselves saviors or anything,” says Knowles, who is modest for a 21-year-old guitar monster with the voice and looks for pop stardom. “But if somebody hears us and then goes out and buys a Muddy Waters record, well, that’s fantastic.”
What’s also fantastic is the on-stage dynamism and tight-locked communication this trio of school chums and neighbors from the Isle of Man — a stone in the Irish Sea so small that everybody’s a neighbor — display in their thunderous performances. Nearly-22-year-old drummer Ross Doyle, 21-year-old bassist Adam Jones, and Knowles enjoy the kind of telepathy possessed only by musicians who learned to play their instruments together. They’ve been at it as a group, more or less, since they were 16, and Knowles confesses somewhat sheepishly that in an earlier incarnation they even covered “Free Bird” — so perhaps this Skynyrd pairing is a bizarre twist of fate.
Back Door Slam’s birth, however, and Knowles’s discovery of the guitar are both linked to Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. About a decade ago, Knowles was riding with his dad when the FM staple “Sultans of Swing” hit their car radio, and he was hooked. The barb sank deeper when his father took him to see Cray perform.
Knowles quickly graduated from cheap acoustic guitars to a cheap electric, practicing until he found the kind of connection that naturals — and the casual brilliance of his playing marks him as one — discover. At the same time, Doyle and Jones were following in the footsteps of their fathers, who respectively play drums and bass.
After signing with Washington’s Blix Street label, Back Door Slam cut Roll Away and haven’t stopped rolling since. “Doing all of this touring has just been fantastic,” says Doyle when I catch up to the band a few weeks after their Chattanooga show during a layover in Nashville, where Knowles is writing with roots tunesmith Gary Nicholson for the group’s next CD.
“It’s such an adventure, touring in a place this big,” says Jones.
“And it’s really allowed us to grow and jell as musicians,” adds Doyle. “We’re better improvisers, and that makes it possible to discover new things about these songs, even though some are five years old.”
“The important thing is to keep on touring and make fans the old-fashioned way, by playing live,” says Knowles. “Making albums is all right, but what’s really exciting is to get out and play for people every night, everywhere we can possibly go. After a year and a half going flat out, we’re not even remotely tired of it.”
BACK DOOR SLAM + LYNYRD SKYNYRD + KID ROCK | Comcast Center, Mansfield | August 23 at 6:30 pm [doors at 5:30 pm] | $20-$65 | www.livenation.com