Forty years ago, teenage evangelists were known to spread their gospel on walls and bridges throughout Great Britain: Clapton is God.
Great British players like Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page followed. Beck may be the most admired, Page the most imitated, but Clapton was the first man to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times: once with The Yardbirds, once with Cream, and one as a solo artist. He wasn't just great. He was deified — and with good reason — but he may have just been keeping the throne warm for Davy Knowles. Elevating Knowles to godlike might have a few of you ready to crown me the High Priest of Hyperbole, but Coming Up For Air is a musical baptism with rare power.
Much has changed since Back Door Slam (the name taken from a Robert Cray song) released their 2007 debut record Roll Away. Adam Jones and Ross Doyle left the band and were replaced in the studio by Kevin McCormick and Fritz Lewak. Joining them was R&R Hall of Famer Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), who played Hammond organ on several of the album's 11 tracks. Knowles enlisted Peter Frampton to produce the album and veteran soundsmith Bob Clearmountain (Springsteen, The Who, McCartney) stepped to the console to mix the record.
What hasn't changed is Davy Knowles' role as the sun in the musical universe of Back Door Slam. His guitar and voice are the gravitational force around which everything on this record orbits. This 22-year old phenom scorches and blinds with the heat of a nova.
The album doesn't open with a blistering assault of guitar, instead giving off just a few rays in the opening notes of the title track. "Coming Up For Air" focuses on Knowles' voice. Plenty of young artists have tried to look and sound older than they are, but are ultimately betrayed by their youth. Knowles doesn't sound like he's trying to sound older, he just sounds older. The song centers on the struggle to do one's best in uncertain circumstances. Tench's gospel-flavored organ work provides additional spiritual depth to the weighty theme, and then it happens; Knowles' guitar explodes with the color and intensity of fire. The build, restraint, and ultimate release of give the album forward momentum while making listeners want to start the album again only one song in.
The graveyard of the blues and blues-rock is overflowing with songs about trains and tracks, but "Riverbed" isn't one more blues cliche. Knowles tells the tale of a tragic train crash near Mobile, Alabama, having seen a documentary on it on television from a hotel on the road. The storytelling is good, the guitar work is great.
The masterpiece of the record is Knowles' cover of George Harrison's "Hear Me Lord" (from All Things Must Pass). Producer Peter Frampton steps out of the console and trades licks with the young prodigy and a supernova of soaring, spiritual sound. Again, Tench's organ provides a gospel ambiance that gives texture to the explosive guitar playing of Knowles and Frampton. Hearing Frampton hold his own with the impressive young Knowles will be a revelation to those too young to remember that Frampton was a huge star in the '70s. His duet on the Harrison classic will serve as a nice reminder for those old enough to remember, but for whom he is more a memory of a decade gone by the wayside.
Frampton's production throughout the record has a little slickness to it, but the professional sound doesn't douse the fire or passion of the performance.
Album-closer "Saving Myself" strips everything away except for Knowles' voice and his National steel guitar (technically the album closes with a bonus track, a duet between Knowles and Jonatha Brooke). Songs like "Tear Down The Walls" and "Keep On Searching" might have benefitted from something a little grittier, but that's something the road can provide. That's probably true for much of this record. The professional sound doesn't douse the fire of the performance, but one's imagination is engulfed by the possibilities of what Knowles might do with these songs on stage.
Knowles possesses a rare discipline among guitarists of this pedigree. Many guitar heroes allow their songs to bloat in the interest of serving the guitar solo, but not Knowles. Only one song on Coming Up For Air – the glorious cover of "Hear Me Lord — exceeds five minutes.
The second chapter of Back Door Slam has been written and it's every bit as compelling as the band's debut, hinting at even more growth and promise for the future. Two albums in and Davy Knowles has answered most of our questions.
The talent and the presence are there. Now all that's left to do is hope he continues to grow and that he'll avoid the pitfalls that have robbed us of of too many. To listen to Back Door Slam is to allow your ears into the presence of greatness. He's got the goods. Britain, get out your spray paint. Paul Revere, get back on your horse. Davy Knowles & Back Door Slam are coming.