A modern day blues master finds joy paying homage to a late rock legend he’s idolized since youth.
By Steve Houk
No matter what field it is, or what aspirations you may have, most people have their influences. Those folks who have made a mark on them, who’ve opened a door, set up a path to follow, and often at an early age. And in some cases, those influences have been the main catalyst for a lifelong career.
For master blues/rock guitarist Davy Knowles, he cites hearing Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” as a kid while driving with his Dad as that moment when he realized what he wanted to do. But as far as artists who’ve had that unmistakably direct impact on him, who’ve given him the impetus to strive for greatness, no one was more of an influence on Knowles than Rory Gallagher, the Irish-born blues guitar god who sold over 30 million records and died at the way too early age of 47. Gallagher was Knowles’ guiding musical light when he was a ‘tween growing up on the Isle of Man, and thanks to Gallagher, Knowles has gone charging ahead as one of music’s most dynamic and hard working blues-tinged rockers ever since.
“I grew up about 30 miles or so off the coast in Ireland, so I heard a lot of Celtic music over there, it was all around,” the very affable Knowles said the night after his Band Of Friends: A Celebration of Rory Gallagher tour began in Boca Raton, one that will make a stop at the Birchmere on April 12th. “I mean, it’s a Celtic nation, so it was part of the fabric, but nothing I was really interested in. But I was very into blues and rock and roll at this point, and what I had heard in Rory’s music were these really beautiful Celtic inflections in his playing, in his phrasing, in his fabric, I guess. And that’s what really struck me…that wow, you can combine these things. So it was really that connection that immediately grabbed me, and just the sheer aggression and power and relentlessness of it was just so totally and utterly captivating and exciting.”
So fast forward some 20 years or so, and lo and behold, who’s on a Rory Gallagher-tribute tour right now playing lead guitar on some of Gallagher’s best known songs, along with some of Gallagher’s longtime band members like Gerry McAvoy and Ted McKenna? Yep, it’s Davy Knowles, that same kid from Isle of Man, who is now a thirty year-old blues guitar god in his own right. And even after traveling the world playing with some of music’s biggest talents, to say Knowles is massively thrilled is, well, an understatement.
“It’s nuts, I’m just trying really, really hard not to fuck it up. Ha, no, it’s absolutely wonderful, I mean it’s a total childhood dream come true, I never thought I’d get to do something like this. Also in the same breath, just to work with two lovely human beings who are also astounding musicians, regardless of any kind of resume. Just to work with them on purely a musician’s basis is an honor.”
Growing up with Gallagher’s music, Knowles has a deep knowledge of Rory’s career progression and his overall style and flow, adding to the palpable excitement he feels being a part of this special tour. Plus it also gives Gallagher’s cohorts, who have continued to tour under the Band of Friends moniker, a chance to kick it into an even higher gear alongside an uber-talented young buck of the blues like Knowles.
“I’ve grown up with (Rory), listening to these songs for a good portion of my life, and you know, how the songs evolved with him,” said Knowles. “I never got to see him live, so I see it kind of as an outsider, really. But what I love especially about Rory, it seemed he had this really strong direction, like a ‘this is what he wanted to do and not anything else’ kind of thing, and I really admire that. So, all the way through his albums, you know, going back to Taste and On the Boards and Live at the Isle of Wight, all the way through to the last albums and the last touring, he still had this sheer power and this sheer aggression and also this spontaneity. It didn’t really feel like it settled ever. I loved that. I mean, that’s what makes it exciting. It was continually changing. And I was speaking to Jerry and Ted about this too, they’ve have been playing these songs for a long time, and so they’ve evolved again, you know. And so it’s about learning their versions, too.”
So how did Gallagher’s longtime bandmates find Knowles, a seemingly perfect fit, to be the one to help channel their legendary bandleader’s classic music?
“I did this Facebook Live thing about Rory’s birthday and the kind of influence that he’d had on me,” Knowles said. “And I tried my little best to kind of explain how his influence had crept into what I do. And Jerry had seen that, and he dropped me a lovely message saying he’d enjoyed it, and ‘Hey, we should do something.” And it just kind of fell into place from there, which was brilliant.”
And this “dream band” for Knowles is not only playing Gallagher’s classic material, but they also do a few of Knowles’ own tunes, adding to the sheer thrill of it all.
“We’re playing a couple of my songs as well, it’s just fantastic to hear Ted and Jerry play something that’s come from my head. I mean, to hear what they do with that is wonderful. It’s been great.”
Very few people get to publicly pay homage to their biggest influences, those who helped shape who they are to the core. But Davy Knowles has gotten that rare opportunity, and so for one of rock music’s hardest working performers — a guy who’s even played for the astronauts on the space shuttle — it’s already been the experience of a lifetime, and the tour is just getting underway.
“Before this tour, I’ve kind of been traveling so much I don’t know my arse from my elbow. But so far, this has been really exciting and really fun, just fantastic. Everything is wonderful, it could be a lot worse, couldn’t it? I mean, I’m in Florida traveling with these guys, playing this music, and it’s 82 degrees here. I can guarantee it’s not 82 on the Isle of Man!”
Band of Friends: A Celebration of Rory Gallagher performs Thursday April 13th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave, Alexandria VA, 22305. For tickets, click here.