A Timeless Wavelength — An Evening with Mark Knopfler

It’s almost insulting that whenever I mention Mark Knopfler, few seem to know who I’m talking about. Usually, mentioning Sultans of Swing or Money for Nothing can get some recognition, and at the very least most people have seen The Princess Bride, but for how exceptional of a songwriter, musician, and bandleader Knopfler is, it’s a crying shame how comparatively unknown his work is. I say this, of course, after bearing first-hand witness to an absolutely packed house Saturday night at his Phoenix stop on the Down the Road Wherever Tour, a venture in support of his latest release. I don’t know what qualifies as a perfect concert, but if it wasn’t this, it’s pretty damn close. Knopfler shows no signs of slowing down, and crafted an amazing set list full of equal parts smash hits and deep cuts that had something to please everyone in the room.

Throughout the show, Knopfler managed to represent almost the entire scope of his significant career, highlighting some of the best of his tenure with Dire Straits, a song from almost all of his solo records, and even a track from his film score work. Regardless of how you knew Knopfler, you weren’t going to be disappointed with the set. He began the proceedings with the rollicking Why Aye Man from 2002’s Ragpicker’s Dream, a crowd-pleaser with ample room for audience participation and thumping rhythm from his enormous backing band, a collection of 10 veteran musicians, many of whom have been with him since the start of his solo career. Corned Beef City off 2012’s Privateering was next, and was another fun, up-tempo rocker that gave longtime collaborator Guy Fletcher some fun on the keyboard.

The more ruminative part of the show kicked off with Sailing to Philadelphia, from the 2000 album of the same name, with some excellent rhythm guitar work and one of Knopfler’s percussionists amply filling in the vocal role normally occupied by James Taylor. The next track was probably the one that the fewest people in the audience recognized, Once Upon a Time in the West from Dire Straits’ sophomore album Communique. This was an unexpected track to hear, but not unwelcome, and had some fun clave and trumpet work. Continuing the laid-back tunes, Knopfler moved into a beautiful rendition of Romeo and Juliet, from 1980’s Making Movies, my personal favorite Dire Straits tune. Knopfler’s voice carried the emotion of the tune even better almost 40 years on, and the lighting that placed him in a similar glow to the streetlight of the song’s main character made the performance even more evocative. The way the band was able to fade in and out between verse and chorus to let Knopfler’s vocals stand out was particularly brilliant. This was one of the highlights of the show.

If I were to have picked two songs from Knopfler’s album that he probably wouldn’t play on the supporting tour, it would’ve been the somewhat peculiar My Bacon Roll and the pretty but sparse Matchstick Man. So, of course, those were the two tracks Knopfler and band performed. After a brief break to speak some to the audience, My Bacon Roll fit surprisingly well after Romeo, matching a similar tempo and Knopfler’s signature melancholy. A simple chronicle of a man’s life as he sits at a diner, Bacon was not a song I would’ve expected to hear, but one that perfectly fit into the setlist. After, Knopfler told a story about his time as a struggling young musician in England and his travails attempting to get home to Newcastle for Christmas from the southern city of Penzance, a funny and expertly-told story that inspired the lyrics to Matchstick Man. This is a song that normally consists only of Knopfler’s acoustic guitar and vocals, but here was beautifully expanded to feature the trumpet, violin, and rest of the band. The way the song came to life was incredible, and again, while not a track I’d have thought I’d hear, it was a natural fit into the mood of the set.

Surprisingly, these were the only songs off the new record Knopfler played, but I wasn’t disappointed, as he set off into another favorite of mine, 1996’s Done with Bonaparte, after introducing his sizable and talented band. Bonaparte is a song that, on record, has an implacable and one-of-a-kind sound, and seeing the collection of instruments that produce it — a bodhran, bouzouki, electric bagpipe, violin, and accordion, among others — was a treat. The tune started with the steel guitar and bouzouki before opening up to the rest of the band, and was lively and energetic throughout. What came next was my definite favorite moment of the night — Knopfler joking about having too many guitars before moving into my number one favorite of his songs, 2007’s Heart Full of Holes. The way the track swelled over its numerous instrumental interludes and scaled back to just Knopfler and the rhythm section for the verses provided for some gorgeous musical juxtaposition, and Knopfler’s vocals told the song’s story of an aging pawnbroker somehow better than on the original record.

With a fantastic trumpet and horn solo came Your Latest Trick from the quintessential Dire Straits album, 1985’s Brothers in Arms. Knopfler’s guitar was much gentler here than on the original, and the saxophone work throughout was especially brilliant. While this one stayed pretty true to its original version, the next song was another that strayed from its original sound — Postcards from Paraguay, another favorite of mine from Shangri-La. Here, it was beautifully embellished with Mexican-style horns and a Mariachi-sounding piano solo in the midsection. The sound was topped off by some exceptional percussion work, with several band members taking up clave duty. Postcards is a no-brainer concert tune, and freed from its duty as the band-introducing track on the last tour, it was an immensely fun song. Without skipping a beat, he moved into On Every Street, from Dire Straits’ final album, which brought the horns in to the melody usually played only by the electric guitar. Finally, he brought the house down with Speedway at Nazareth, a song with an epic instrumental section at the end that never seems long enough. Its lyrics mentioning Arizona and Phoenix were especially well-received by the crowd, naturally.

The encore consisted of two songs, the first of which was the electrifying Dire Straits smash Money for Nothing, where Knopfler showcased his unparalleled guitar work, playing the iconic intro and solos as only he can. Getting to see this tune live was a treat, and seeing how the entire band was able to contribute to the song’s famous sound without over-embellishing was tons of fun. As soon as that opening synth part played, the whole crowd was on their feet, and was treated to an extended drum solo before the rest of the band took the stage. The final song of the evening was Going Home, the theme from the 1983 film Local Hero for which Knopfler wrote the score. At first it seemed an odd choice, but listening to the beautiful main melody of the tune, here with the trumpet and Knopfler’s guitar joining the usual saxophone, was a treat, and ultimately seemed the perfect way to end a show that was, by all counts, a career retrospective of the highest degree.

So, were a few things missing? Sure, I would’ve loved to hear other famous Dire Straits hits like Walk of Life or Sultans of Swing. Maybe some representation from Get Lucky or Tracker, or even more tunes from the album this tour was ostensibly in support of, like Good on You Son or One Song at a Time. I also wouldn’t have complained about hearing What It Is or Yon Two Crows, two other favorite tracks of mine. But when you have a library so expansive and full of great material from which to pick, you can’t begrudge Knopfler for playing what he did. A night where I get to hear Heart Full of Holes and Romeo and Juliet is a good night, and there was no weak link in the set list.

Knopfler and Co. are still at the top of their game and show no signs of slowing down. Mark Knopfler remains the best songwriter in the business, and after all this time he still knows how to tell a story, put together a killer band, and play the hell out of a guitar. This was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen, and I felt lucky to have been able to see it. I hope he never stops touring, but if he does, I’ll be satisfied knowing I got to see this one. It doesn’t get better than Mark Knopfler.