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Concert Review: Mark Knopfler, July 15, 2008, Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN

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I can read books more than once and I can damn sure watch a movie or a TV show more than once, but it is rare I'll read or watch something a first time if I already know how it ends. The thrill of the initial discovery, the discovery of territory not yet discovered, the deflowering of a plotline – this is what propels me from the beginning to the end. There are exceptions, and last night was one of them.

If you've spent much time listening to the solo work of Mark Knopfler, it doesn't take a great deal of imagination to envision what seeing him in concert will look, feel, or sound like. As the evening wore on, I realized why my trusty sidekick 11 likes Knopfler so much and it's a good description of what was good about last night: imagine David Gilmour with better songs and a lesser, more Dylan-inspired voice. Gilmour is his favorite player and it wasn't until last night I noticed the sonic (and physical) similarities between the two aging, British guitar legends.

Californian singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop opened the show. She seemed a pleasantly loony sort of lass; ever so slightly buzzed but still alert enough to notice people starting at her as she stood on the stage. Hoop has an interesting pedigree, having been the live-in nanny to the three children of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Her set was brief, light, and tuneful. The crowd paid her little mind, but she may not have noticed.

A short time later, Knopfler took the stage. For two hours, he led his band through a sampling of his solo work as well as songs from his years fronting Dire Straits and it sounded just as I expected, just as it should. The multi-instrumentalist band provided texture and support, occasionally stepping out for a brief moment in the spotlight before retreating behind the pure sounds of Knopfler's lead guitar.

The purity of his tone and clarity of his ideas are hallmarks of what makes Knopfler an engaging lead player. He isn't sparing with his notes but each has a purpose. Nearly every song played was extended to allow for an exploration and expansion of his musical ideas ideas, which is where he lives as a player. He's not about a display of chops; his guitar excursions are dreamy soundscapes with enough form to be pleasing to the ear but with a hint of mystery and ambiguity. He should restrain himself just a little less on record and allow himself the freedom to explore his ideas in longer form, because as he demonstrated to the near sellout crowd it is something at which he excels.

The sound was spectacular, instrumentally speaking. Everything was well placed and had the right amount of volume and separation – everything except for the lead vocals. Knopfler's microphone was not turned up nearly loud enough, which was frustrating. I suspect part of the reason is that he was having some sort of throat problems, because despite not singing vocally demanding songs he struggled to hit notes that are seemingly still well within his range.

Another curiosity to me was the set list, or rather one part of it. It was a nice selection of songs and I enjoyed every one of them, even songs I didn't know particularly well (if at all) before last night. What I don't understand is why arguably the two most popular songs of the evening are played back to back, in midset. "Romeo & Juliet" and "Sultans of Swing" were played in the seventh and eighth spot respectively. They were brilliantly played, absolutely aural treats. I'm not complaining but was frankly surprised two songs the entire audience is sure to know and love were paired together and dispatched.

I walked into historic Ryman Auditorium a casual Knopfler fan and left even more suitably impressed, wondering how he slips through as many cracks as he does. With all the dodgy bands in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, how have Dire Straits been left out?

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Arman

    I am fan of both. To me they are quite different. As a guitarist, Knopfler has wider range than Gilmour — is perhaps “technically” deeper. Their writing at times have similar textures. Telegraph Road (which he played last night) for instance. But on the same album, Private Investigations is quite “Dylanesque”. As a song writer, knopfler is far more prolific. His background in journalism shows up in so many of his songs (check out the comic / sarcastic Industrial Disease and Dont Crash the Ambulance for example).

    My question about the concert last night is why only one song from the new album ?

    As for hall of fame, does it really matter ?

  • Mat Brewster

    Since falling in love with his duet album with Emmylou Harris I have increasingly a fan of Knopfler. His guitar work is very subtle, but quite brilliant.

  • Arman, of course it doesn’t matter in terms of whether or not we enjoy the music but it matters to me in as much as I find it interesting for discussion.

    There were two songs from the new album played at Ryman: “True Love Will Never Fade” and “The Fish and The Bird.”

    Agreed, Sir Brewster. I held out quiet hopes that Emmylou Harris might make a cameo. Sadly, it was not to be.

  • Hope

    What a treat, to finally, after all these years to hear my favorite musician. I feel let down that I cannot see him again before the tour ends. Yes, I wish I could make half the speed you do, Mark!

  • Josh


    Thanks for the review. He’s going to be performing at Chastain in the Atl tonight.

    I now know what to expect 🙂

  • Josh, you’ll enjoy it thoroughly. I wish I could make it over to Chastain to see him a second time. You should be in for a great show.