Daniel Knox at Quarter Block Party in Cork, Feb 5 2016
I had the great pleasure of seeing Daniel Knox play live in Cork last weekend. The show was in the deconsecrated St Peter’s Church (not the perfect venue for this music maybe, but let’s not quibble) as part of the Quarter Block Party festival. I’ve been a huge fan of his since his wonderful self-titled third album last year and this gig was the definition of much anticipated for me.
Daniel Knox is not a small man. He sat at his keyboard and practically dwarfed it, even down to the size of his fingers on the keys. And yet you’ve never heard a lighter touch at a piano. Like stones skimming across a lake. Tapdancing for the hands. His feel for the instrument is sublime - something I personally value above sheer technique – which is all the more impressive as he is apparently self taught. (Maybe there’s a logic to that in fact, as in learning an instrument on your own you are presumably more interested in atmosphere, melody, things like this, than in technique.)
He opened with ‘By the venture’, the song more than any other from last year’s album that held me by the arm (not by the throat, that’s not really how his songs work) and wouldn’t let go. The arrangement on record has a beautiful bed of strings and cheery woodwind and I wondered if the live version could compete. It could. Partly due to the added emotional heft of a preamble explaining that the song related to a childhood put down (“you live by the venture”), the eponymous venture being a kind of discount shop close to his family home. And partly due to the exquisite vibrato baritone he filled the old church with. I’m not generally a fan of vocal vibrato but I make exceptions for songs this good where the voice inhabits the character, inside out.
There was also the worry as to whether he could maintain this sterling start. No worry. Each song had a writer’s introduction, a sublime touch at the keys and that voice.
The stalking, half menacing/half laugh out loud ‘Don’t touch me’, as if David Byrne went cabaret.
Cabaret. The word I use most when describing his music to friends. A cabaret of tunes full of pathos and emotion, not polite as such, but requesting the pleasure as opposed to demanding. The show was also frequently hilarious, most often in those before song vignettes (‘Don’t touch me’ concerned a girl he once worked with who was wont to apply too much hand cream), while the songs themselves laid out scenes of quiet desperation, decay and stoicism.
At the end of each of which, Daniel Knox plucked a sheet of paper from the stand in front of him, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it on the floor like Hemingway ripping it from his typewriter. Another one down? That’s what I think of that? Let’s try again? Whatever it was, we laughed like children and it served to underline the writerly quality of the songs.
The comic timing involved would also remind you of Groucho Marx (his favourite Marx brother according to one interview). A later kazoo solo mid song tended to reinforce this impression.
Was it this, the jaunty but devastating ‘Ev’ryman for himself’?
Pathos was another word that came strongly to mind all night as we whooped and hollered and sang along. ‘White Oaks Mall’ for example, a pretty name for the degradation and neglect of middle America, told through the medium of a handsome dirge.
It was interesting that he appeared less self deprecating offstage after the show, something good to see. Showing two things hopefully. One, that he is as good a character actor as a songwriter and singer. And two, that Daniel Knox himself is also aware of the rare and special talent he possesses.
He promised a new album and to come back soon. I’m counting the days.