Halfway between England and Ireland in the Irish Sea juts the Isle of Man. At just 32 miles long by 14 miles wide, it’s a cozy place.
Yet Davy Knowles got a vast musical education there.
“My dad had a fantastic record collection,” said the singer and guitarist, who will headline at the eighth annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival this Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.
Knowles’ late father, a commercial deep-sea diver, was a fan of what he jokingly called the ’60s Great British Folk Scare — acoustic acts like Bert Jansch, The Pentangle and Cat Stevens. He also fancied the British blues boom: Rory Gallagher, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac.
Knowles’ older sister had a pretty fair collection, too, of North American jazz and folk rock music, from Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
One record stood out, however.
“My dad played me Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits. And that was really what made me want to be a guitar player,” said Knowles, 31.
He was a ‘tween on a mission, armed with VHS videos and his dad’s guitar.
“It was just a case of watching the videos, getting the rough idea of where your hands are going, and figuring it out from there,” Knowles said.
With school chums he started a band, Back Door Slam. By the time Knowles turned 19, his talent was too big for his 500-person village to contain. He set out for Los Angeles, with his parents’ blessing.
“Hey, they got me a suitcase for my 18th birthday! The island was such a great place to grow up. But you’ve got to go out there and see the big, bad world. And you’re 19 years old. Get out there!”
He got out there, all right, in a big way.
Over the years, Knowles has toured with Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, The Who, Warren Haynes, George Thorogood and Joe Bonamassa; played the Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Austin City Limits festivals; and released three solo albums, including last year’s 1932.
He even managed to blast his music out of this world, beaming Roll Away, from the first Back Door Slam album, to the International Space Station.
The song “just seemed fairly apt,” said Knowles, who admitted feeling “absolutely terrified” by the prospect at first. “You played through an iPhone, which is the most bizarre thing in the world.”
It came about because astronaut Nicole Stott had married a Manx man who was a friend of the Knowles clan and knew Davy’s music.
DAVY KNOWLES’ TIPS FOR GUITARISTS:
“Listen more. That’s my big thing. Play along to your favorite records, and listen to what everyone else is doing.
“There’s a huge movement of guitarists, and I’m incredibly guilty of this too, that’s just kind of blocking everything out, and: ‘look what I can do.’
“Some of the best guitar players out there are the ones that really listen and react. I think that’s the key.
“All of your favorite guitar players are the ones that actually played songs that you like, rather than just showed you how well they can practice.”
And of course, don’t neglect your uke.
“It’s a really fun instrument, man! It’s impossible to be sad and play the ukulele.”
Knowles has other friends in high places: Peter Frampton became his producer and mentor.
He admires Frampton’s phrasing and melody on guitar. “You can sing every single note that he plays,” Knowles said. Even more, he appreciates how the former Humble Pie star treats people.
“He’s been as successful I think as you could possibly get in the music industry, done things unimaginable to most artists. Still somehow, he is so humble, so genuine and so kind. That was the biggest lesson I learned from Peter. There’s no bloody excuse for anyone (to behave badly) if Peter Framptons are like that.”
Video: Peter Frampton, Davy Knowles and Sonny Landreth
Knowles and his Chicago-based band–Michael Caskey on drums, Andrew Toombs on keyboard and Marvin Little on bass–will bring mostly original tunes to Morristown. But don’t be surprised if a Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen number pops up.
“The general idea with this is a bit of a no-nonsense, hopefully, lack-of-pretension kind of rock and roll show. Really, that’s the idea. It’s old-fashioned,” Knowles said.
“One of my heroes, Rory Gallagher, he was like, ‘You just go up there and you play your hardest and you sweat as much as you can, and you do your best.'”
Rock and roll, sure. But this is a blues festival, after all. And ultimately, that is Knowles’ genre of choice.
“Parts of the blues creep in everywhere. It’s really one of the building blocks of any popular music, really,” he explained.
“There’s a bit of a freedom to it. Sometimes you can get reined in a lot with the structure of something and that’s fine and that’s great. I think it’s important to practice a bit of restraint.
“But in blues, it gives you the opportunity to open up a bit and express yourself in a more improvisational manner. Just kind of spur-of-the-moment, rather than, ‘Here’s a strict guideline and I’m going to express myself for three-and-a-half minutes.’ It’s just a little more open, and I really relate to that,” Knowles said.
While he’s hoping to win fans in Morristown, his newest fan won’t be making this trip. Knowles and his wife Amber, a Chicagoan, had their first child less than a month ago.
Little Emmy’s musical education already has started.
“She’s heard everything from Pete Seeger. Little Boxes, we sing that one a lot,” Knowles said.
The proud papa, meanwhile, dreams of someday performing with other faves of his father, guys like Richard Thompson and John Prine.
One more icon would bring his education full-circle.
“Mark Knopfler, I would probably run away crying if I ever got in the same room as him,” Knowles said of the Dire Straits ace.
MorristownGreen.com is a proud sponsor of the 2018 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival,which runs from noon to 10 pm on the historic Morristown Green on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. Bring a lawn chair or blanket. It’s free, it’s rain or shine, and it boasts an all-star lineup, starting at noon with the U.S. Air Force Rhythm in Blue ensemble. At 2 pm, Canadian singer/trumpeter Bria Skonberg returns for her second festival here. LaBamba and the Hubcaps follow at 4 pm. The Bernard Allison Group plays at 6 pm, and Chicago-based guitarist Davy Knowles headlines at 8 pm.