On stage, the trio plays much older, wiser and more experienced than their years. They may look green, but they’ll sneak up on your with the power of their music and lyrics. Their well-written originals like Come Home and Too Late whip crowds into frenzies — at the Merc I overheard more than a few “Holy fuck, these guys are great!” comments from the crowd. The place was much more crowded than their last show there, a trend that has been holding up all across the country.
Jones and Doyle are as deft a rhythm section as you’ll find, allowing Knowles to show off his mastery of the blues guitar. He can rip, and he does, but perhaps the best aspect of his playing is that he knows how to control himself, not overreaching nor overplaying. His voice projects across the room like an old pro, belting out soulful lyrics that you’d never expect were penned by a 20-year-old from a sheltered island off Great Britain.
So how do three youngsters from the Isle of Man come to play an elusive style of music born in America? “That kind of music was really playing around my house an awful lot as a kid,” Knowles says. “My dad’s record collection was a big influence on me – he played me Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing and that was the first thing that really caught my attention. And from that, I thought my dad listened to cool music. So I went through his stuff and I found John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. And when I found that album he did with Eric Clapton, that was when I really got into blues in a big way. It became on obsession – you work backwards.”
Their love of the Isle of Man notwithstanding, blues became the trio’s ticket to globetrot. “The thing is,” Jones says, “the Isle of Man is such a small place; you’ve gotta get off it and see the big, wide world.”
And they don’t have plans to return soon and tour the United Kingdom — they’d like to continue seeing the big, wide world further from home. “I would like to stay away from there,” Knowles says. “I love the UK, but traveling’s a lot more exciting. I’d love to go Europe too, and I’d love to get to Australia. But the States is really where we need to be, where the music came from.”
From wence it came, and so on and so forth. But Knowles points to another reason they love touring the States: the crowds. About the American crowds, he says, “They’re the best crowds we’ve played in front of. They’re noisier, ya know, it’s great. They make more noise, and that’s what gives you the adrenaline buzz.”
They’ve felt that buzz all across the country, playing small clubs and big festivals alike. And as much as the trio enjoys performing at big festivals — especially when they opened for The Who at the Peel Bay Festival last May — they also know it’s more about the fun than the actual gig. “As far as being at a festival,” Jones says, “you’ve got a big crowd there, and you can walk around and watch a lot of bands you like. It’s a great atmosphere. But you never get the sound you want, or the time. Especially outdoors, it’s not as good.”
As we talked you could tell that no matter how big they’ve become or how big they’ll get, the idea of meeting more establish musicians is still a thrill. Knowles met Steve Earle at last year’s Asutin City Limits festival, where I saw them for the first time: “That was really cool,” he says. “I was carrying my mandolin around backstage, and he comes up to me and he goes, ‘Is that a mandolin, boy?’ I said ‘Yes, sir, yeah it is’ and he goes, ‘You sure you wanna play that, because you’ll always be out of tune and you’ll never make any money.’ That was really cool that Steve Earle would say that.”
Musicians that maintain some semblence of reality and stay grounded are hard to come by, but you could tell that these three are equally proud of the success of their album and humbled by the trail of positive reactions they’re leaving in their wake. Sure, they know they’re talented, but they’re still letting it soak in.
“I just think we’re very lucky to be doing what we’re doing,” Knowles says. “A lot of people never get the chance to do this. We’ve had an awful lot of luck and we have a lot of people to thank who have helped us. So really we’re just playing our asses off to make sure we keep this door open for ourselves. It’s a hell of an opportunity and we’re very, very grateful for it.”
And we’re grateful that a group like Back Door Slam wants to play here as often as we’ll have them. So if you’re looking for a taste of the blues, buy the album, check out their tour dates and mark your calendars — they’ll sneak right up on you, too.