May 2, 2010
In a world of ever-increasing pop stars and teeny-boppers, today’s MTV-generation music is far removed from the legends of a mere generation ago, yet some of those legends are still amongst us. One of them in particular, Mark Knopfler, took his show to the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC on May 2 and showed the crowd why he still matters. Yes, he still plays the old songs, but he brought out some new ones too. And despite a medical issue that kept him sitting on a stool throughout the night, Knopfler reminded us why he became a legend in the first place.
Knopfler and his seven piece backing band opened up the set with the first track off of his new album, Get Lucky, a song called "Border Reiver." Then the band played "What It Is" before moving onto an early highlight of the show, "Sailing to Philadelphia," a moving ballad about Charlie Mason and Jeremiah Dixon setting off against the perils of the day to chart and survey their new land. On the live take, Mason’s part, which on the album is sung by James Taylor, was covered beautifully by fiddler/mandolinist/guitarist/ banjoist Tim O’Brien who graced Mark and the crowd with his talents throughout the night.
Along with O’Brien, Knopfler was also backed up by a grand piano/accordionist, an organ/keyboard/guitarist, a rhythm guitar/mandolinist, a flutist/mandoloist, a drummer, and an upright/electric bassist. This band was more Nashville than LA, more Austin than New York. And of course, these guys could all play. When Mark was introducing them about halfway through their two hour set, he kept running out of adjectives to describe the amazing musicians that he had amassed
After a few more tracks, the band stripped down to a sextet, and with the two keyboard players on stage, the audience wondered which direction they would take us. Mark needed only play the first two chords on his resonator guitar before everyone was ready to sing along with Dire Straits favorite "Romeo and Juliet."
Knopfler played at least a half dozen different guitars throughout the evening: the resonator, an acoustic and a bevy of electric guitars…each more beautiful than the last. And he played them all with nothing more than a volume pedal and his fingers. And that it really what sets him apart from the rest. His sound does not come from toys and from pedals galore – his sound is inside. Regardless of the instrument in his hand, it sounded like Mark Knopfler, one part classical, one part jazz, a few parts rock and roll, all simmered heavy in soul and depth. The Warner Theatre is an intimate venue and Mark never stood from the bar stool he was perched on (due to a pinched nerve). Everyone in the room could see every lick that he played, they could feel every note. With one swift motion he could get people rocking in their seats or he could make them mourn something from their past. When Knopfler is playing, he is in complete control of his environs. There is something just a little bit magical about a guy with that kind of power.
Then, perhaps just to show us that they could, the band stripped down even further and Mark was left with just bass, drums and his rhythm guitarist. They played "Sultans of Swing" and the room went crazy. After both of these tracks, the band got well-deserved standing ovations. It was so nice to hear a song that it so iconic being retooled by its creator. The form was the same, but the notes changed here and there. It is easy to picture Mark at home, playing the same songs that he has been playing for all of these years, finding a new combination of perfect notes to replace the old combination of perfect notes and smile to himself ever so subtly. He may just be doing it for himself, to shake off the routine and attempt to challenge himself at something he has done so flawlessly for so many years, but his efforts did not go unappreciated by his audience.
The band came back out and they played a few more tracks before closing out the set with the epic "Telegraph Road." At this point, a man with a towel draped over his shoulder came out with a tray full of cups and handed them out to the band. Due to Knopfler’s injury, the band chose to take their break between set and encore on stage milling about in front of their audience, who was going crazy all the while.
Then they settled back in and played "Brothers in Arms." The song opened with just Knopfler’s guitar and vocal, and an accordion handling the vocal melody. From there, the song opened up with three acoustic instruments strumming and the whole room seemed to be enveloped in steel strings and complimentary rhythms.
Even if you were not following the lyrics, Mark’s voice told the story. It is an eerie tale and this arrangement certainly did it justice. Then the band lightened things up with "So Far Away" and closed out the night with "Piper to the End," off of his newest album.
The band exited the stage but no one turned on the house lights, so the crowd stood there cheering for more. Even after the lights robbed us of the magic of the room, the crowd continued to stand and to wait, perhaps hoping they could regain some of the magic that they had felt just a moment ago.