After a seven-year hiatus, bestselling Christian singer/songwriter Jennifer Knapp —who always stood apart from her contemporaries in terms of her musical grit and unadorned emotional ferocity; who created some of the most iconic songs of her genre and generation, such as “Undo Me” and “A Little More,” — came back with two big announcements: (1) she’s returning to music; and (2) she’s a lesbian. Predictably, the latter has eclipsed the former. But Knapp is first and foremost a musician, as she demonstrated last night at Red Devil Lounge (I can only imagine what her horrified conservative fans think about their disgraced idol playing at a San Francisco bar named after Satan, which: bonus!).
It is a very curious thing to see a Christian concert in San Francisco. Now that I have done so, I feel like I’ve been privy to some odd, Brigadoon-style experience that most would dismiss as superstition.
This is not to suggest that Knapp’s show was overtly praise-and-worship. While she did play the material she became famous for while on the CCM (contemporary Christian music) circuit, she also played a number of selections from her impressive new album, Letting Go; while Knapp retains her Christian faith despite the nationwide buggering she’s getting from conservative believers, her new album eschews the overtly spiritual songwriting of her past in favor of a more neutral but still fiery folk-rock sound.
Knapp’s stage demeanor was modest and self-deprecating; one senses she’s already burned out from her newfound coming-out publicity, since the fame machine has accelerated quite a bit since her exile and she didn’t really interact with the mainstream media during her CCM days. Since her decision to come out, she’s been actively pursued by both gay and Christian media outlets (not many can boast of having come out simultaneously to the readers of The Advocate and Christianity Today), and on Friday night, she found herself being interviewed on Larry King Live and defending her right to be both gay and Christian to a conservative pastor on national television. So, you can understand why she’d prefer to forget all the noise when she’s on stage and focus on the music.
And thank heaven for that, because Knapp is a truly powerful and electrifying live performer. Her long absence has not lessened her ability to instantly grab her listeners with her intensity and passion. She traditionally appears on stage by herself with nothing but an acoustic guitar; last night she was joined by singer/songwriter Amy Courts, who sang harmony with Knapp following a charming opening set of her own.
Given the remarkable emotional and musical range Knapp is able to convey with just her own voice and an acoustic guitar, it makes perfect sense that she chose to to pay homage to one of the great contemporary classics of stripped-down voice & guitar virtuosity: Living With Ghosts by Patty Griffin. Yes, Jennifer Knapp played a Patty Griffin cover — and not the one you’d expect.
Instead of “Forgiveness,” Griffin’s epic pseudo-Christian ballad of spiritual reconciliation and liberation, Knapp instead covered “Every Little Bit,” the furious cry of sexual rage that basically functions as the “Why’d Ya Do It” moment of the album. Even Griffin hasn’t included that song in her live repertoire in a decade, which means this was the first time I was ever privileged to hear someone sing it live. And it was glorious.
Jennifer Knapp is a fantastically gifted singer, songwriter, and performer. I hope that she will survive the endless rounds of publicity that a “comeback” like this entails, and continue writing and recording music. Her voice is absolutely vital, now more than ever.