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?