Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Same train up to Birmingham as a fortnight ago for the Verdi Requiem, same place for a meal, same Concert Hall, but tonight it was music of a very different kind from one of the three best bands I know – Dire Straits.


Click on any of the images to enlarge them

Well, nearly Dire Straits. Dire Straits was one of those bands which was really built around one person – Mark Knopfler. He is a rather introverted Geordie who, as well as writing some of my very favourite songs, is one of the best pop guitarist in the world. The band started in the late 70s with Sultans of Swing and gradually the songs, many of them reflecting Knopfler’s inward looking character (is that why I like them?) became more complex and longer pieces of work.

The band was in almost continuous change mode for most of its life, with members coming and going, especially going, with unusual rapidity. But Yer Man was always there, and a string of amazing albums came out in the 1980s. Love Over Gold, Communiqué, Making Movies and Brothers in Arms were iconic pieces of work which, for me at least, defined the music of that era. Long, laid back, somewhat melancholic, often autobiographical songs dressed up in the third person to hide, or at least act as a cover for Knopfler’s privacy. And here was pop music where the power of loud and soft, quiet and loud, sometimes even silence made you realise that it’s often the difference in sound levels and not the number of decibels which makes for the dramatic effect.


The band became one of the biggest in the world, and toured relentlessly everywhere. I went to see them a couple of times, once at Wembley in 1985 and again in around 1993. I think he finally got fed up with it all a couple of years later, and it all dissolved around 1995. He moved onto other things with the Notting Hillbillies, writing Film music (Local Hero and The Princess Bride are both written by him) and playing with and writing for other musicians like Emmy-Lou Harris, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Chet Atkins.

His songs were often about very unusual subjects – the decline of American Industry (Telegraph Road), the sleazy, almost Mickey Spillane-like Private Investigations, the simple beauty of Romeo and Juliet, the bitter wistfulness of wars fought and friends lost (Brothers in Arms) and the glitzy pointlessness of consumer goods (Money for Nothing). These are great pop songs and the 10 minute long, slow, languid, looking back over your shoulder versions of Romeo and Juliet (far, far better than the bouncy 3 minute original) and the heartfelt Brothers In Arms are permanent members of my All-time Top 10. If they didn’t appear on the playlist tonight, then multiple murder was a real possibility.

The problem for bands like Dire Straits is one faced by all the bands I really liked in my life. They all wrote their own songs, and they are the only people who performed them. No other bands were daft enough to try a cover version or offer a different way of performing them. So, if you wanted to hear them live, you had to catch them when they were performing it on stage, or basically you were stuffed. It’s the same with the two other great bands in my life. With Pink Floyd, two of the original four members of the band are now dead. With Genesis, Phil Collins is not performing anymore, and Peter Gabriel is doing his own thing. With Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler today seems to have zero interest in the songs he wrote in that era. So, until tonight, I thought the opportunity to hear these bands live had effectively gone.

I went to the last Genesis tour in 2007, and I do not expect to hear them live again ever. Pink Floyd, given that they always performed in a very anonymous way, seem to have allowed a couple of very good Tribute bands to take over, one British and the other Australian replicating their music and to a significant degree their light show. Having seen both of them more than once, it’s fair to say that they fly the flag as well as it could possibly be done.

Last night was the first concert I’ve heard live of Dire Straits’ music for nearly 20 years. The problem was that Mark Knopfler, the centrepiece and focus of the band would not be there. In a similar way to Pink Floyd, the essence of Knopfler’s music is in the writing, and he was always a bit anonymous and somewhat reticent on stage. He collected some extremely good musicians around him, particularly towards the end and these are the guys who have reformed to take his music back on the road. Alan Clark and Chris White were the guys who were with the band in their heyday, and they were there last night to carry on the thread of continuity.

It’s not the real thing, and as long as the main man is not there, it never will be. But this is the real world, and you have to realise that if you want to hear this music again, there is only one option and this incarnation is it. So take it or leave it.

So there I was in Symphony Hall, waiting with a good deal of expectation and looking back to hear this music which is a real part of me and hoping to recapture a little bit of my long lost youth.

a very good support act
The audience did not include that many young kids, but I suppose this was music which faded from the front line in the mid 80s. The ticket, in very small print, alluded to the “special guest”, who turned out to be a singer/songwriter with a slightly twenty years on Gerry Rafferty feel in some of his work - and that’s praise indeed in my book. His name was Jon Allen, and I have to say I didn’t envy him, wandering out on his own with just a guitar into the cavernous interior of Symphony Hall to warm up the audience for the main act. Like the people around me to whom I spoke, I liked his music a lot, and am heading off to Amazon.

The Straits, for that was the band’s name, came onto the stage and I counted 8 of them. The keyboard player Alan Clark and Saxophonist Chris White were the old stagers of the original band, and the poor guy who was going to play the part of Mark Knopfler was Terence Reis. I bet he felt a bit nervous, as this was still at the very early part of their tour.

They played all the songs which Dire Straits made famous, and the sound was very faithful to the original. Terence Reis’s voice, to me, sounded more like Knopfler’s the longer the concert went on, and his guitar playing was very good. If I’m being ultra-picky, he couldn’t quite match Knopfler’s fabulously liquid quality of playing, which I have always thought the best I’ve ever heard. But that’s almost unfair, and in the end I thought he did an amazing job. The encore at the end, a very gentle, “close-in” version of Portobello Belle, to these ears at least, was better than the original.


All the signature sounds were there with Alan Clark’s almost classical piano playing and Chris White’s excellent sax playing bringing back some of the best musical memories of my life. In my mind, the water flowed back under all the bridges it had been passing under for nearly three decades. I was transported back to days when I was a lot younger, and for that I am very grateful to all the guys on stage for playing it. I know I will sound a bit like my grandfather when I say it, but they don’t write music like that anymore.

Was it perfect?

No, it wasn’t. The show had a slightly unfinished air about it. No-one in the band seemed to be “in charge”, so, at the beginning at least, it took on a slightly anonymous, unowned feel. It was almost as if Reis felt he ought to be stepping up and taking Mark Knopfler’s place, but only built up the confidence to start projecting himself forward a bit towards the end of the evening. They’re big shoes to fill, but he did a good job.

Chris White played excellently when he was involved, but, when he wasn’t, he looked quite unconnected and uninvolved, picking up and putting down his various instruments and almost wondering what to do. At one point he looked for all the world to me as if he was almost going to get his phone out and start checking on his e-mails and his Twitter stream. Alan Clark, who was directing operations musically, had the back of his head to the audience as often as his face, which was a shame, as he is a wonderful pianist and has a very expressive and watchable style of playing.


The lighting also had a slightly unpolished feel to it in places. A couple of times, when, at least to me, it was really important that the pulsing of the lights exactly matched the beat of the music, they were either not on the beat or not pulsing at the right frequency. The individual spotlighting on the main soloists, particularly Chris White, could often have been more crisply focussed, as on a few occasions he was playing his solo beautifully - but in the dark.

Symphony Hall, as I keep banging on when I write about concerts there, has fabulous acoustics, and this was of great help to the band, although Reis’s guitar was occasionally a bit submerged in the background when, to me, it should have been a little more prominent and more clearly defined.

I also haven’t had my rant about people who think it’s OK to get up in the middle of a song, disturb everyone else in their row so they can go off to relieve themselves of some of the excess beer they’ve consumed. They’ve paid a tidy sum for their ticket, to hear some music that quite likely they won’t ever hear again, but nipping off to the loo is more important. Can’t they wait until the song finishes? Rude, inconsiderate bastards. And why, in heaven’s name, do the stewards allow them to come back without waiting for a lull in the proceedings? At least that would halve the irritation. I have to confess I wish I hadn’t left my Kalashnikov in the car again. Aaaaaah!

These are however, minor and trivial comments which do not begin to detract from the music. It was a really good evening, and the spirit of Dire Strait’s music shone through as I had hoped it would. I hope the band is a success and that they become the “tribute” band for this marvellous music. The music is so good that it needs to be kept in the public’s mind for a long time, and until this tour all happened, it was starting to disappear off the new music fan’s radar.

The guy next to me had his two young children there, both of whom were clearly under 10 years old, with the band folding up several years before either of them were born. “They’re a bit young for this sort of gig”, I said to him jokingly. “No”, he replied, “They’re here to listen to some of the best pop music ever.”

How right he was.


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