Before I saw Jon Langford a couple weeks ago at the Southgate House Revival, I had read that Daniel Knox was going to open the evening. I went to Knox’s website to orient myself, but as often happens, I was interrupted before I could listen to anything. The night of the show, I wasn’t paying attention when an unassuming guy walked onstage and sat at the keyboard. I didn’t even notice until he began to sing. His gorgeous, haunting voice rippled among the waves of his musical score, working the tension between fancy croon and despair. Daniel Knox has alarming range in his voice. I don’t know what type of person I would expect to have brought those musical bones to the stage, but the contrast between the guy I saw and the revelation of his music added to the wonder. It was one of those moments of discovery when I learn there’s another entire world that has just casually walked into the room.
His set in Newport included the keyboard, supported by four overturned milk crates, and himself. After he played, I stumbled over some compliment to Mr. Knox at the merchandize table and bought his CD Evryman For Himself. On the ride home, I read the CD liner notes: Ralph Carney and others play with Knox. (“Ralph Carney?” I said to my husband. I know Carney from his work with Tom Waits, icon.)
The sound of Daniel Knox is theatrical, so I was not surprised to see he has collaborated on stage productions. Some of his songs make me think of Kurt Weill, some of Fiona Apple (Extraordinary Machine is her album I’m most familiar with, but Knox and Apple also seem to share a certain strain of hopeful bitterness), and there’s certainly some Waitsian sounds involved, too. Knox is another of these fabulous interdisciplinary aestheticians, whom, if I were hiring, I would invite to join the IA dream department. After finishing each song, he would toss the pages of music (which I suspect might have been props) to the floor behind him, a floor salad of inspiration.
Maybe because I had no idea what to expect, the milk crates supporting the keyboard added a layer of secrecy to the moment. It was a little like sitting in a basement in college, listening while a friend reads from her journal, finding perfectly-formed gems of humanity inside each line. Knox’s songs are like little sad 70s movies, minimal but complete stories with haunting soundtracks. His work is raw and fragile, but also strong like a metal building, an eternally-surviving frame surrounding a tiny, exquisite flower of pain. I scribbled some of these notes in the semi-dark as I listened, and one thing I wrote (my memory between the moment of going to his website weeks before and being interrupted and that evening at the church was so blurry), was, “and I don’t even know his name—I sat through the whole set not knowing his name!”
There was once a humble Vietnamese restaurant nearby our town. I used to like to get the noodle bowls there. On the menu, with the listing of choices, there was a note: For 50 cents extra, you could order “more interesting vegetables.” I always ordered more interesting vegetables, and although I can’t now recall which specific vegetables came for that half-dollar splurge, the term became shorthand in my house for more interesting anything, usually to do with books or movies or art or people.
Daniel Knox is one of those who deals in more interesting vegetables.