The past week was a reminder of what I love so much about live music. Things out there remain a bit Covid sketchy. Shows still being postponed, mask mandates; venues not filled to capacity. It feels like we still have a ways to go before we’re back to anything approaching normal. Maybe that’s why my three musical forays felt so special. Intimate venues. Nicely filled but not overly packed. Familiar faces. The Regulars of the music scene. Best of all, a trio of shows that are best described as Authentic.
Before reflecting on last night’s show, which capped the week, I want to encourage all music fans to rise from the couch. Head out to support your favorite bands and venues. They need us to survive. Things are getting better but we’re not fully out of the woods. I know I’d forgotten what it feels like to be lifted up. To feel supported by a community that doesn’t care about your politics or beliefs. Live music brings us together. It heals and builds bridges. Please get out there as soon as you can. It helps each and every one of us.
I’ve had Davy Knowles at The Hook circled on my calendar since the day it was announced. One of those shows where you spread the word and bring as many people as you can. I first caught Knowles some dozen or so years ago. Immediately recognized something generational. A precocious teenager who seemed hardwired directly into the soul of rock and roll. Over the years it’s been a thrill to watch him continue to realize all that potential. Don’t take my word for it. Guys like Peter Frampton and Joe Satriani have been saying it for years.
The fact is, I love electric guitars. Rock and roll was born with a piano and a saxophone. Early in the game, a bunch of young kids heard what was being done in places like Chicago by Black blues artists. The guitar pushed aside the horn and the rest is history. Over the years, popular music has moved in many directions but without that iconic instrument at the core, it’s something other than rock.
So when a master comes to town, I tend to get excited. What I hadn’t expected was that Chicago’s opener Steepwater Band was going to be a match made in heaven. Those guys drink from the same source as Knowles. Maybe that’s why they’re fast friends. Authentic rock, roll and blues built around those crying guitars.
Steepwater looks like something that stepped onto the stage circa 1970. With the first note, the sound matched the look and approach. That’s a good thing. A real good thing. Because, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll sit all night long debating with you that rock music reached a pinnacle in terms of attitude, approach and enduring songs in the prolific four or five year window that spanned 1969 to about 1973. If you’re going to influenced by a style or sound, what better place to start than right there?
I often say you can tell so much about a band by the covers it chooses. Admittedly, covers can be straight up pandering. The song may have been chosen because it’s a hit. They’ve got the chops to play it. No offense intended to the weekend warriors plying that trade or their fans who love to sing along with the Hits. It’s just not my cup of tea.
However, the heartfelt cover in the right hands is a window into a player’s younger soul. It gets played simply because he or she reveres it. It’s a song that’s on the roadmap of how they got here. It’s got nothing to do with playing it note for note. It’s got everything to do with early inspiration and a dream that never died.
Early in the set, Steepwater delivered a delightful take on the Clapton/Winwood collaboration Tell The Truth which was recorded by Derek and The Dominoes. Over the course of their full length set, they offered up Cinnamon Girl and Beatles’ Hey, Bulldog. There were moments I felt the presence of The Allman Brothers (boy, they sure looked the part!), Bonny and Delany Bramlett along with the aforementioned Crazy Horse.
Don’t interpret this as saying the band is at their best doing other artists’ music. It’s to help you feel their roots. Their own material stands tall on its own merits. The band has been around for over 20 years. The catalog is deep. They may have gone on first but this was a night that really ended up being a double bill between a couple bands that share more than just a taste in music. The fact of the matter is that they’ve even shared members.
How many times have you seen a venue where folks tend to arrive a bit later or hang toward the back until the headliner steps on stage? Local fans are generally polite for that first band out of the gate. Minnesota Nice, right? Yet, it’s often golf claps and quiet between songs. Not the case with Steepwater! Pure rock and roll, tumbled to a sheen. Folks crowded to the front and were fully engaged throughout the entire set. I’m an impatient guy. I’ve come to see whoever I came to see. What a delight when somebody with whom you’re not familiar blows you away.
What can I say about Davy Knowles? The instant he hit the stage, the audience was ready. We were all having a blast at a rock and roll party already. Knowles was more than up to the task of keeping it going. The next 100 minutes or so were sublime. I danced my ass off. That cat can flat play!
When people try to promote young guitar players out there making a name for themselves, the fact is that there’s a lot of sound and fury. Hell, everybody is fast these days. But there’s this really fine line between being a guitar hero and a narcissist. That’s okay. After all, rock and roll or the blues has never been about humility. Yet, the best wear the mantle lightly. Davy Knowles is one of those guys who doesn’t show off. Takes his time. He expresses himself through that Telecaster with as much grace as fire. Like one of my friends marvelled: “He makes it look so easy!”
I’ve always believed that the best bands and musicians serve the song. In other words, nothing that’s done instrumentally should upstage the song itself. The persona should not overpower the art. The vast majority of songs are built on lyrics and a catchy hook. That probably explains why lead singers are the ones who tend to get famous. The instruments are there to provide the foundation and frame of the story being told. It’s rare when the song itself is, quite literally, a lead guitar singing the song.
Think about where and how this has been done at a high level. Stevie Ray did it like that. So did Hendrix and Rory Gallagher. Bob Mould is of that ilk. Neil Young and Crazy Horse are still doing it. Almost always it’s a power trio. Why? Because that’s all you need. If the voice of the song is the electric guitar, then don’t clutter the sound.
It doesn’t mean it’s simplified. The great ones like Davy Knowles hold an orchestra in their hands. With three pieces you don’t have to rein everybody in to avoid chaos. Instead, the rhythm section builds a foundation and the guitar goes exploring. Every night is unique. So we’re not being presented a polished product. We’re witnessing the spontaneous creation of art in front of us. I’ll take that every time.
I mentioned before how we can learn so much about an artist by the songs he or she decides to cover. Don’t you just love it when a band cranks out a song that isn’t the obvious choice? One you might not have heard in awhile. The kind of song where you turn to your friend and proclaim: “I love that song!” That moment creates a special bond with an artist. You discover you and the band are actually B Side Buddies. That you’d like nothing more than to sit with them in front of a killer sound system and epic record collection. You know you’d go long into the night swapping tunes. I believe nearly every member of last night’s audience felt that when it was Davy’s turn to choose.
Do you have a personal list of desert island albums? Albums you find sublime, even though the general public may never have recognized it? One on my list is The Waterboy’s Fisherman’s Blues. Within the first couple notes (nowhere near verbatim, by the way) one of my young friends looked at me with big eyes and uttered: “Oh my God! That’s Fisherman’s Blues!” She was off like a shot to the front of the stage. It occurred to me, over the course of tens of thousands of live shows, I’ve never heard anybody cover one of my favorite bands. And most people should never try.
Case in point, I caught SRV on his first tour. He was blowing me away and suddenly dropped into VooDoo Chile. I stepped back shocked. “Kid, you just crossed the line! There are rooms in the temple that should never be plundered!” Fifteen minutes later, I knew how wrong I’d been. That was not the case when the band dropped into Fisherman’s Blues. All I could think was how great this was going to be in Davy’s hands.
The best music, in my opinion, is honest. Authentic. Sure there’s a show. The bigger the venue, the more things like production value become part of making it work. But it’s still theater and it’s fully choreographed. It has to be because there are so many pieces involved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m into that when done right. But the most visceral reactions are when I can get up close. When I watch the players depart the here and now. Witness them tap into some cosmic stream and ride that wave. That’s contagious as hell. It’s voyeuristic admittedly. But it’s also intensely human and authentic. I’ve always thought that if the whisky was top shelf, why add Coke?
I like to keep a list of shows, songs, moments that mean something to me. It’s part of why I write for TCM. Maybe it’s just my way of making sure I remember what’s important. Otherwise I forget. Age will do that to you. As we waited for our encore, I remarked to friends that I felt like a kid at Christmas. I had no idea what Knowles would come back and do. Yet, I knew it would be a single song, not a set. It would probably be a perfect cover. And he’d play that thing til the roosters crowed.
When Davy walked back out with Steepwater guitarists Jeff Maxey and Eric Saylors, a buzz went through the crowd. We’d enjoyed two bands with maxed out guitars. Now all three were plugging in. Time to make some noise! Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer. Three old souls strapped, locked and loaded to burn the place down. For those of us who love a screaming guitar, we reached Nirvana.
The biggest smiles of the night came from the headliner himself as he stepped to the rear of the stage and nodded to his friends during that rendition. Just keep it going, man! We could have been an audience of 50,000. We could have been 6. Didn’t matter. They didn’t need us for those 15 minutes. Everything they needed was somewhere out there in a cosmic stream. They’d found it and took their time to drink from it deeply. It was Authentic. Visceral. It was a privilege to be invited along for the ride.