It's by no means the strangest opening act/headliner pairing I've seen, but Daniel Knox isn't the first person I would think of to open for Kristin Hersh, particularly the Kristin Hersh of The Shady Circle, her current show. Now, let's be clear about two things: first, I'm not saying it was a bad pairing; second, I tend to think about stuff like this (to excess) in purely musical terms, even though I realize that the vicissitudes of touring often make strange bedfellows.
Sonically, Knox is a sort of piano troubadour, with a deep, sonorous voice full of quavering vibrato. This can be gleaned from the recordings on his MySpace page. Backed up in concert by a minimal drumkit and electric bass, he sounds more or less like the recordings, with a little less production and accompaniment sheen. The thing that gets me about Knox is the mix of earnestness and (only sometimes self-)deprecating humor that comes through in both his songs and banter. Verily, some people can pull this off. And judging by the howling laughter coming from the row behind mine, some people thought he was very funny. He was funny. But instead of working with the songs to make the whole persona endearing, his humor seemed to undercut his best material. His opening song was about a man who had his finger bitten off by a dog. (And then went to reclaim it.) This is a fairly dark song, and a fairly good song. Later in the set though, he offered an evaluation of the bathroom conditions at the Old Town School, which turned into a strange tirade about phobia of bathroom germs. Needless to say, this was a song introduction; the tune was a lament for being hygenically compromised by unnecessary handshakes, etc. There's a reason why there are billions of great folk songs about driving railroad spikes and approximately zero about quotidian office jobs. In this material he sounds like Tom Lehrer in a foul mood. (Lehrer is/was also keen enough to realize that he couldn't break into truly dark, brooding stuff fresh off of a number like "The Masochism Tango". The two just aren't really compatible.)
Hersh is currently doing a show which she describes as based around Appalachian folk songs, largely murder ballads. The first thing to note is that this isn't a traditionalist show; it doesn't even sound like so-called "alt country". The instrumentation is as sparse as it gets, just Hersh and a guitar. But it's an electric guitar, and even with no distortion, the syrupy chimes of her Les Paul aren't something you'd hear on a West Virginia front porch. Moreover, her actual playing is pretty straightforward rock guitar, some nice fingerpicking aside. The rhythms are rock rhythms. Now, I don't think that Hersh is under any illusions about this. It's refreshing to see the material reinterpreted in this way, especially given the ubiquity that acoustic guitar-toting murder balladeers seem to have these days. That said, some of the strongest material in the show was the contemporary stuff, including some solo material, a Throwing Muses tune, and a Latin Playboys cover. As I noted in a preview of the show, the stark electric guitar and Hersh's strained voice evoke To Bring You My Love-era PJ Harvey, trawling a space somewhere between deathly blues and cold rock and roll. This works for all of the material, traditional or otherwise. In a show this intimate -- a singer, a guitar, no dance floor -- the performer really has to play to mesmerize, and Hersh certainly managed to pull that off.
Finally, Hersh's humor (she's really quite funny) served to draw the audience into the material, rather than to back off of the intensity of the songs. This is what made them a strange pairing: the basic direction of Hersh's set was towards earnest intensity, but where Knox's better songs pulled him in that direction, he kept backing away from the precipice with humor and affect. I got the feeling that this was a ploy to charm the audience, at the cost of selling out the seriousness of the songs. (Another case of irony working as the most corrosive force in popular music, natch.) I do hope he was noting this, as his material (at times) is strong enough that he doesn't have to have the audience in hysterics to pull off a good show.