Jennifer Knapp hit the stage for the first time in four and a half years Thursday night, appearing to a sold-out crowd in the tiny Hotel Café venue in the heart of Hollywood, in what has been billed as her "comeback concert."
Knapp, looking much the same as when we last saw her (maybe with a few new tattoos?), took the stage after friend and fellow CCM veteran Phillip LaRue played a handful of songs as an opener.
Once on stage, alone with an acoustic guitar, Knapp said, "They say it's like riding a bike. We shall see … " Then—to great applause—she launched into one of her biggest hits, "A Little More," from her Grammy-nominated album Lay it Down (2000). After the huge applause for that first song died down, someone in the audience shouted out, "How's the bike treating you?" to which Knapp replied, "It's a 21 speed and I'm about ready for a tricycle."
For the remainder of her 9-song set, Knapp played all new songs, many of which she said she "wrote last week."
"You guys have had about seven years of listening to the same boring three records," said Knapp early in the show, seemingly to justify the absence of most of her older hit songs from the set list. But despite most of the music being totally new to everyone in the room, the audience of devoted fans (some had flown to L.A. just for the concert) was thoroughly rapt the whole time.
A week ago, Knapp had broken her long public silence with a statement on her website, saying that she had been "traveling mostly" during her time away from music. She wrote: "My experiences have been both wildly exotic and extraordinarily mundane. But mostly I will say that I have had a chance to get my feet under me. I took that time to discover more about myself and my own faith without the veil of expectations to a cause. Without writing a novel at this point, I'll just say that I'm starting to think that I might actually be a songwriter, musician, or artist of some kind … So, maybe I should do something about it?
"I know that many of you have persisted at hope that I would return to music. Why you have wanted or even cared has been one of the greatest mysteries to me, at the same time, a complete and utter blessing as it has always been. Thank you for your support. I can only hope to repay you with what you have waited for … music."
That "repayment" began in earnest Thursday night in Hollywood. Her set's second song, "Letting Go," can be heard on her recently revived MySpace page, but the other songs she played—many of them quite beautiful—are presumably fresh creations that may not have been recorded yet.
However, Knapp's MySpace page includes pictures of her apparently recording tracks with producer Paul Moak at Nashville's Smoakstack Studios. Moak has worked with the likes of Mat Kearney, Martha Wainwright, Toby Mac, Hilary Duff, Leeland, Michael W. Smith, and Amy Grant.
Before her fifth song on Thursday night, Knapp spoke about growing up in Kansas listening to country music—Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers. She said her family had been begging her to write country songs for years, and that she wrote this song in particular for her grandfather.
Knapp wasn't particularly talkative between songs, apart from a few comments while tuning her guitar ("I usually do this in private" and later "good grief, I tune a guitar like a girl!"). At one point in the show, however, an audience member shouted out something like "How have you been?" to which Knapp said "If you think you're going to find out some big secret, keep fishin! I didn't ask you what you did with your vacation!"
Knapp made it clear that she was well aware of the many rumors and theories going around as to what exactly she'd been up to during her long, silent absence. At one point when there was a bit of electrical feedback while she tuned her guitar, Knapp said, "Must be my pacemaker! What, you haven't heard that rumor?" She then listed some of the other bizarre rumors she had heard about herself over the years—that she had given birth to babies, had open heart surgery, was living in Paraguay, etc.
Her new songs were on the sad side, and some even angry. And apart from some lyrics about needing mercy, the songs seemed to lack any overtly Christian lyrics (a far cry from the strongly Christian, worshipful themes of songs like "Undo Me" or "When Nothing Satisfies," which she did not perform). On the contrary, the new songs seemed decidedly un-CCM, with lyrics like "so sorry I ever gave a damn" and "who in the hell do you think you are?"
Though all of Knapp's new songs were good, the last two songs she played were particularly strong—even heartbreaking. The penultimate song (sorry—no titles are known) featured a driving, angry chorus: "Well I'm the one who keeps it on the inside / locked away from judgments wrong / Oh I'm the one who keeps it on the inside / So leave me alone!"
After this song, and as an introduction to her final song, Knapp spoke a little bit about dealing with judgmental culture. "I've been thinking a lot about how we all bicker and fight and judge each other," said Knapp. "You know it's a lot easier to judge someone else than to be judged back."
And with that, she commenced her beautiful closing song, which was all about her attempts to keep faith in her "fellow man." ("Some call it delusion but I've seen it first hand / It's the whispers of hope in my fellow man.")
The show's overall mood—and setting in a small trendy bar in Hollywood—felt like new leaf and fresh start for Knapp outside the mainstream of CCM. And even though it was a quick show with little time for "catching up," Knapp seemed forceful and passionate—very much "back in the saddle" and confident in her new material, and just as brilliant as her fans remembered her.
Jonathan Roeback of Fontana, Calif., a Knapp fan since 1999, attended Thursday's show. He said he enjoys Knapp's music "because it's so full of raw emotion and I can totally relate many songs to my own struggles, convictions, and need to be humble trying to walk a life seeking after God. The songs of this last show really show how much struggle Jen went through as she went on sabbatical. Her new songs help you see again the true emotion inside her. She delivered a stellar performance and her music is still as sharp, beautiful, real and relevant now as it ever was."
Copyright © 2009 Andree Farias subject to licensing agreement with Christian Music Today. Click for reprint information.