September 22, 2019
I was 17 the first time I heard “Sultans of Swing”, and I was not amused. Who was this nasally sounding, semi-spoken Brit with circular breathing like hammer-ons? But, it didn’t take me long to figure out that those tunes and that Strat playing were off the charts extraordinary. “Down to the Waterline”, “Water of Love” and, of course, “Sultans”, off Dire Straits eponymous 1978 debut, had a hypnotic ear lock on my head. To this day “Making Movies” is a high watermark that never receded, and “Telegraph Road” (in both it’s studio and live versions) from their follow-up “Love Over Gold” is definitely in the band’s pantheon. Then “Money for Nothing” broke, Knopfler switched his Strat for a Les Paul and the whole world was dialed in, and while I went along, it didn’t have the same nuance and elegance of previous records. The band held on for another few albums and I was fortunate to catch the “On Every Street” tour, their last, in 1991.
Knopfler has released 10 solo discs since then and mixes his earlier catalog with this material when he tours. His latest, “Down the Road From Wherever”, is a quieter, thoughtful affair that fits right in with much of his solo work. I’m a big fan of Knopfler the solo artist in his own right, but also because he travels with the legacy of that other band. It’s been said by many a fan (and allegedly, Dylan) that Knopfler makes his guitar talk, And, while I miss the fire of his earlier playing, the best of his solo efforts are barrel aged, wise and seasoned, six strings always speaking.
His Los Angeles stop at the Greek Theatre came on a near perfect second evening of Fall. This was a hard ticket and not an empty seat. My shooting perch was from the sound board and the new Sony 200-600 5.6-6.3 got its first real workout. With only the first two songs cleared to shoot, I was scrambling through the opening “Why Aye Man” off 2002’s “Ragpicker’s Dream” (love the churn of that tune) and “Corned Beef City” from 2012’s “Privateering”. I was bagging my gear during “Sailing to Philadelphia” and “Once Upon a Time in the West”. The thunder and romance of “Romeo and Juliet” gets me every time, with Knopfler spotlit alone with his National steel (cutaway) guitar to bookend it beautifully. “Matchstick Man”, from “Down the Road Wherever”, rose with uilleann pipes and Irish drum, like the sun cracking through on a highland stroll.
Many of Knopfler’s seven mates have been with him since 1996, multi-instrumentalist (one of several), producer and arranger Guy Fletcher among them. Knopfler was pub friendly chatty throughout the evening, affable and quite relaxed, with much to say about the songs and the players. The rolling lilt of “Done With Bonaparte” from his solo debut, “Golden Heart”, was just sweetness, with Knopfler back on the National. The familiar sax intro of “Your Latest Trick” off the bazillion selling “Brothers in Arms” was queued by Graeme Blevins with keyboardist Jim Cox (all the way from Long Beach) teasing “Stop in the Name of Love” (or so it seemed) that just fit the mood. “Postcards From Paraguay”, from 2004’s “Shangri-La” definitely jacked up the pace, and “From Every Street”, the title cut from Dire Straits last studio record and its see-saw instrumental refrain, was a gorgeous departure point for Knopfler’s red Strat. But it was the set closing “Speedway at Nazareth”, from 2000’s stellar “Sailing to Philadelphia” where Knopfler was completely unleashed.
Drummer Ian Thomas’ and percussionist Danny Cummings’ opening crescendo ignited the “Money For Nothing” encore. The two going tribal in hot white light, before the fuzzy Les Paul growl of Knopfler’s first chords. However dated the lyrics, the song still kicks hard. The final encore of “Going Home” from the Local Hero soundtrack (a small flick with big ideas that must be seen) has all the earmarks of the best of Knopfler’s musical themes and dynamics. The equivalent of a soft bed after a hard day full of moments of reflection and memory. A fitting closer.
The set has been consistent throughout this tour, and while, with a catalogue this deep there was plenty more I wanted to hear, I was never left wanting. This was simply a splendid evening and Mark Knopfler and mates were splendid company. Couldn’t ask for much more, and that’s hard to come by these days. Wherever this road goes, I’m gonna be on it.