Playing alongside rock greats, and even for some astronauts in space, is all part of a guitar master’s amazing journey.
By Steve Houk
If you’re a rock and roll fan, especially a fan of blues-soaked guitar work that boggles the mind, and you don’t know Davy Knowles, well, you really really should. So listen and learn.
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I mean, ever since the startling guitar wizard from the Isle of Man arrived in the states ten years ago when he was 19, he has quietly stunned not only thousands of rock fans, but has also impressed some pretty high-end colleagues that he’s worked with over the last decade, including Peter Frampton — who co-produced his first record Coming Up For Air — as well as Warren Haynes, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, Joe Bonamassa, Sammy Hagar and dazzling guitar impresario Joe Satriani, who called Knowles his “favorite modern bluesman.” Knowles is nothing if not very humble when he hears those kinds of gold-tinged kudos.
“In all honesty, it feels like they’re talking about somebody else. It’s quite surreal really. Joe has always been incredibly encouraging, and someone of his stature to say something like that is really really cool, really lovely. I feel very lucky.”
Knowles still belongs in that ever-more-rare club, the club of bluesmen, and he has seen the industry and the genre change in these last ten years since making his first big splash. He feels that if you stay true to your muse, then you can do what you want without fear of selling out.
“I think you’re good as long as you’re being sincere with the music you’re playing,” Knowles told me during a break in his tour, which comes to the Tally Ho Theater in Leesburg, joining fellow guitar master Eric Gales. “You’re not trying to fabricate it just because you might find, ya know, a couple more people might enjoy it. As long as you believe in it wholeheartedly and you feel like you’re doing the right thing, your audience might go there with you. You run into trouble when you say, oh well, I need to get up the charts, that’s when you run into trouble.”
And Knowles appreciates the pioneers of the blues music that runs through his veins, especially some of the real originators of the music he holds so dear.
“You can’t play this kind of music without doing a big nod to those who came before. It’d be good if they got a little more noticed. And it doesn’t have to be electric, people in my generation and younger now are still very very hung up on the electric side of it, which is great, paying tribute to the late Freddie King and Albert King, ya know, those guys. But what about the Bukka Whites and the Son Houses, those guys from way back. There wouldn’t be any Freddie Kings or Albert Kings without them. I think it’s important to look back as much as possible and pay tribute to a few more of the originators, definitely.”
In addition to collaborating with some true rock and roll heavyweights, Knowles has delved into another arena and found a sense of fulfillment he hadn’t found just playing music: filmmaking. After being named a cultural ambassador for his beloved Isle of Man, he wanted to do something different than just purely musical representation, and digging into the more traditional sounds of his homeland while working on the documentary Island Bound, featuring appearances from Frampton, Richard Thompson and others, provided a real sense of discovery.
“It was a project I really fell in love with,” the very affable Knowles said. “Being named a cultural ambassador for the Isle of Man was a really big honor and I wanted to make sure I did something with it. The first kind of idea was just to do a few songs in a traditional Manx sense, at least let’s record something, push myself to learn a little bit more about this genre. But as I talked to more people, as I kind of got deeper into Manx traditional music, I thought, wow, there is a really good story and it’s not altogether too different from the story of American music, it comes from all over originally. And that was fascinating to me. We pitched it to a film company on the island and said why don’t we do this as a bit of a documentary. I’m really pleased with how it turned out. If you just really believe in a project, like I believed in Island Bound, then I think you can’t go too wrong. You want to do it properly. But yeah I just really loved it. It was a great experience.”
And speaking of great experiences, who ever gets to play their own music for astronauts in space? Only two people have, Jimmy Buffett and yes, Knowles did too, thanks to a century old family connection.
“Talk about surreal. There’s an astronaut named Nicole Stott, and she’s got a connection to the Isle of Man, turns out her husband’s family goes way back like 150 odd years to be family friends of my family. So she liked some of my music and took some of my records up there with her. On I think the second trip up during a mission, she wanted me to record like a wake up call and I did that. Then she requested that I play to her from Houston Mission Control. It’s just an iPhone, which is the most baffling thing. We went over there and I was just terrified, it was the scariest gig of all time. Just an amazing thing, every kid wants to be an astronaut when they grow up and I was never clever enough to do that, but this was definitely a good consolation prize was to play to them. It was an amazing experience. I needed a drink to calm me down!”
Davy Knowles knows the road to success, especially as a musician, is a one fraught with speed bumps and roadblocks. But he is simply elated at what music has given him in the decade since he came to the U.S. and really started to make his dream a reality.
“The very fact that I’m still a musician, the goal has been accomplished. It’s not like it’s been a steady trajectory, there are always bumps in the road, no matter what you do, whether you’re a musician, or you’re an accountant. The fact that I’m still playing, it’s all I ever wanted, it’s absolutely incredible. I wouldn’t take any of it for granted. There’s definitely some things I could have done without. But perhaps I wouldn’t be the person I feel I am at 29 without those things. Overall, I’m really happy, happy to be on the road, happy to be playing, happy to be making a living, that’s all I ever wanted from when I was 11, to yesterday.”
Davy Knowles opens up for Eric Gales on Thursday February 23rd at The Tally Ho Theatre, 19 West Market Street, Leesburg, VA 20176. For tickets, click here.