A cavernous tent on the Boston Harbor surrounded by more beer vendors than patrons, it’s tough to make the Bank of America Pavilion feel intimate. Mark Knopfler did his best Saturday night though, commanding audience attention without even playing many of the Dire Straits hits he’s known for. Concentrating on his much more delicate solo material, Mark's sea shanties and love ballads wooed a crowd smart enough not to drunkenly yell out Brothers in Arms requests.
Instead, what they got was a very different sound, pensive and archaic; no saxophone, but plenty of violin and accordion. Knopfler’s solo songs sound like rural 19th-century Britain, with scaffolders and hill farmers plying their trades day by day, weathering the small ups and downs of life. The song selection seemed carefully chosen to continue these themes – no “I want my MTV” tonight – with pensive ballads like “Sailing to Philadelphia” being aided by the ocean smell wafting through the crowd. Knopfler’s acclaimed 2007 album Kill to the Get Crimson seemed somewhat neglected however; on the tour bearing the album’s name, only two songs were played: “True Love Will Never Fade” and “The Fish and the Bird.” Even the Dire Straits songs seemed chosen for the more subdued mood. Fast hits like “Money for Nothing” and “Walk of Life” were nowhere in sight, as the few hits played seemed to be of the slower, more romantic variety.
This isn’t the say the concert was a yawner, or low-key by any means. Mark’s quiet energy pulsed through the crowd with every guitar fill or drawled lyric. Though he’s never been prone to traditional guitar heroism, his solos were jaw-dropping as usual, cementing his place among the best guitarists ever. Dropped casually and with little fanfare, he went on long solo jaunts when the song called for it and held back when it didn’t. Not just going through the motions, he reworked the “Sultans of Swing” solo – good enough to be a song by itself – hitting the classic points but fiddling around with many of the parts. His hollow-body work was equally astounding, and that iconic metal guitar from the Brothers in Arms cover became the show’s main prop when, during “Speedway to Nazareth,’ a circular cloth replica descended over the stage, surrounded by lights, for a showy light show that complemented the solo fury of “Telegraph Road.” Though completely at odds with the intimate atmosphere, the nod to stadium shows of the past got the crowd on its feet and proved a fun diversion.
The band, however, provided as much non-Knopfler entertainment as was needed. A phenomenal group of musicians, they proved more than a backing group churning out the hits. A six-piece group, the two organ and piano players joined the rhythm section to provide the backdrop for John McCusker’s violin lines and solos. A man of many talents, he also played lute and cittern during the show, but the violin work propelled many of the songs around. Knopfler seemed to love watching him as much as the crowd, doing subdued guitar-violin duels on several occasions and giving him plenty of space to work. Though Mark was the focus of the show, McCusker gave him a run for it.
In the encore, people finally got the heavy Dire Straits fix they’d been hoping for. As stars covered the backdrop, Knopfler gave a mournful “Brothers in Arms” and, after a trick ending following "My Shangri-La," went back to his guitar for “So Far Away” and the can’t-get-out-of-your-head Irish instrumental “Going Home.” A fitting closer to the night that proved the Mark is more than just a has-been ex-frontman, but a solo artist just a vibrant in a newer, quieter sound.
Why Aye Man
What It Is
Sailing to Philadelphia
True Love Will Never Fade
The Fish and the Bird
Hill Farmer’s Blues
Romeo and Juliet (Dire Straits)
Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits)
Song For Sonny Liston
Speedway to Nazareth
Telegraph Road (Dire Straits)
Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits
So Far Away (Dire Straits)
Going Home (Theme from Local Hero)