Whilst researching for this review, I happened across an article about a Mark Knopfler show in Glasgow and read it, nodding in agreement with much of the content, as it described a lacklustre performance and dull choice of songs. It was only at the end I noticed the review was from 2013. Not much has changed it seems.
There are artists whose technical proficiency, coupled with an extreme lack of charisma make performances in barns like the NEC almost impossible to enjoy on any level, except maybe as just a spectacle. I had a very similar feeling after seeing Bob Dylan. There are other artists who accept that the majority of any audience would love to listen to a good mix of their songs, old and new, hits and album tracks, and make a reasonable job of sticking to the original arrangement. Mark Knopfler is not one of those. Therefore unless you really love his solo work, you will be a little disappointed to hear only four Dire Straits songs from a 2 and a quarter hour set.
I admit that hearing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Telegraph Road’ live, sends shivers down my back, and watching Mr Knopfler calmly play timeless guitar solos is worth the ticket price alone, but I left the venue thinking this could have been so much more fun. It is only during the last song of the set (‘Telegraph Road’) that the audience rise to their feet; for the preceding hour and three quarters, no one moves, least of all the star of the show. Mark Knopfler is a professional musician and behaves like a member of his own band; all professional session musicians. Mark introduces all of them during the night as the best at what they do: I can’t argue with that, but they play like they are in a studio, not performing to thousands. If the band are having fun, they are keeping it to themselves. Countless times during the show Mark turns his back on his audience to interact with his band. After the first encore, his band form a scrum instead of facing their fans. It really feels at times, that we are an unnecessary addition to their jam session.
I think the problem is that Mark Knopfler went from writing universal songs that filled stadiums, to very personal songs that work on an album and would fit perfectly in a small venue, but fail to inspire in arenas.
I might be the only one who feels this way as every track played from Knopfler’s new album ‘Tracker’ is applauded enthusiastically. In fact the audience seems not to know the early Dire Straits tracks quite as well, as they commit the ultimate faux pas when they applaud before the last verse of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has been sung, just because Mark takes a dramatic pause. Highly embarrassing. Also drummer Ian Thomas, fails to live up to the stunning tom tom fills originally played by Pick Withers – the best drums ever recorded by the way.
Knopfler’s guitar sound is impeccable all night – he has many guitars: resonator; Fender Strats; Danelectro; and his 1958 Les Paul Standard, and they all go through two Reinhardt amps and 4X4 Marshalls, with a Tone King Imperial as well. His use of a volume pedal for much of his lead work makes his notes appear as if from nowhere and his use of vibrato with his left hand is second only to the man who invented that style, B B King (sadly departed only last week). Mark still plays with the same finger-picked style that first rose to prominence on Dire Straits’ eponymous first album and is distinctive as it is brilliant. His voice, sadly has not improved and for the first few songs is practically non-existent in the bass heavy mix. For ‘Sultans of Swing’ he can be heard, but much of the lyrics he talks through, as if he really can’t sing it anymore, or just can’t be bothered. It is a welcome relief when Ruth Moody accompanies him on vocals and he provides harmony to her beautiful voice on the stunning ‘Kingdom of Gold’ and again on encore ‘Wherever I Go’.
Much of Knopfler’s performance is what’s going on inside him not what he shows on the outside, because his control is such that he never appears to let go; every note he plays is carefully considered and perfectly executed – it is inspiring to listen to, but painfully dull to watch. I am sure he is fully aware of this, but this is his way and he is never going to change, and the older he gets the more mellow he becomes. His next tour you will see him in an armchair or horizontal I am certain… but still playing beautifully.
Band: Guy Fletcher (keyboards), Richard Bennett (guitar), Jim Cox (piano), Mike McGoldrick (whistle and flute), John McCusker (fiddle and cittern), Glenn Worf (bass), and Ian Thomas (drums). With Ruth Moody (vocals) and Nigel Hitchcock on sax as special guests.
Songs played: ’Broken Bones’, ‘Corned Beef City’, ‘Privateering’, ‘Father and Son’, ‘Hill Farmer’s Blues’, ‘Kingdom of Gold’, ‘Laughs and Jokes, Drinks and Smokes’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Sultans of Swing’, ‘Mighty Man’, ‘Marbletown’, ‘Speedway at Nazareth’, ’Telegraph Road’.
Encores: ‘So Far Away’, ‘Wherever I Go’, ‘Going Home – theme from Local Hero’.
Review: Alan Neilson
Photographs: Steve Roche