Date: August 18th, 2019
“I was here a while ago,” Mark Knopfler said from the Wolf Trap stage Sunday evening, adding that the intervening years have made him consider retiring—which elicited a collective boos from the audience.
“I love doing this,” he said in his understated English way, assuring the gathered that the show will go on.
Knopfler has put out nearly a dozen solo albums since his Dire Straits days, and he’s out on the road now promoting his latest, ‘Down the Road Wherever,’ which is as much about poetry as sound. Cuts from that stellar disc figured into the setlist Sunday evening, and you’d expect that since many of the songs are downtempo, so too would be the energy.
Despite a rather loud introduction of the performer from stage right by a fellow wearing a shirt emblazoned with a particularly big Union Jack, Knopfler took his place at center stage without a fuss and did what he does best: start to play.
The artist, 70, opened his nearly two-and-a-half-hour show with “Why Aye Man” from his 2002 release, “The Ragpicker’s Dream.” He didn’t speak between any of the early songs and just kept it all about the music.
Much like Bob Dylan—or perhaps even Bruce Springsteen—Knopfler has never been particularly known for the strength of his voice, but what it lacks in vocal oomph he makes up for with the soulfullness of his compositions. It is as if he is channeling, with his lilting baritone and unshowy style of singing, the troubadours, road warriors and castaways of old—a particularly fraught theme on “Down the Road Wherever.”
“Sailing to Philadelphia” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” filled out the early moments, before the lights went down low and Knopfler, illuminated in spotlight, began to strum the chords of “Romeo & Juliet,” which elicited a tremendous roar of appreciation from the Wolf Trap crowd welcoming the Dire Straits mainstay.
Knopfler shared a particularly heartfelt anecdote about his own wayward travels as a lead-in to “Matchstick Men,” the final song on his latest album. Knopfler, now seated on a stool, related hitchhiking to Greece as a young man and returning to his native England in what, he hoped, would be enough time to get back to his home in Newcastle to join his parents for Christmas. However, on Christmas Eve he found himself in Penzance, in the far, far southwest of Brittania, with 500 miles to make up before the holiday bells. He said he hitchhiked as far north as he could with a trucker, who dropped him near his home on Christmas, but without another car in sight (“not a truck, not a car, not a rabbit,” as he said, to laughter), he surveyed what he called 360 degrees’ worth of snowy English countryside—in possession of his guitar and not much else.
“I guess I’m running out of things to write about,” he said about the inspiration for “Matchstick Men,” a rather mournful but somehow still inspiring tale about being alone on Christmas morning, and its searingly lovely pain about being left “on a high crossroads, where he can see for miles around.”
The 10-piece backup band then reconfigured into a horseshoe arrangement downstage, and with Knopfler still seated on his stool, the bandleader heaped praise on the extraordinary talents of his support artists, whom he estimated play “somewhere around 40 instruments” between them. He introduced them one by one, from longtime pals Jim Cox (piano) and Guy Fletcher (keyboards) to more recent additions John McCusker (fiddle) and Mike McGoldrick (flute).
McCusker and McGoldrick’s contribution to the ensemble cannot be overstated, with the sorrowful Celtic timbres of their instruments enlivening Knopfler’s compositions and taking them to new heights when performed live.
Yes, it was a rock show, but it was also what might be called a soundscape experience. Given the breadth and depth of both the instruments utilized by the 10-piece band as well as the virtuosity of their use, it was hard not to feel lulled into a musical dreamscape on the slower songs constituting the second half, including “She’s Gone,” “Your Latest Trick” and “Postcards From Paraguay.”
The crowd came alive with closer “Speedway at Nazareth,” and continued on its feet hollering for more until keyboardist Fletcher took on the high notes of that famous—and now decidedly dated—Sting line: “I want my MTV.” Drummer Ian Thomas and percussionist Danny Cummings attacked their instruments as stage lights flashed behind them. Once the crowd was in a frenzy—and not before—Knopfler came back to hit those famous riffs of “Money for Nothing” on his ax.
It’s a climax if ever there was one, and no one sat down again. (Naturally, given the no-longer-even-close-to-PC lyrics of the second verse, they were of course altered.)
“Money for Nothing” would have been the perfect sendoff because where do you go from there? In another direction entirely, as it turns out. For the second encore, McGoldrick and McCusker started out on “Danny Boy”—befitting their Gaelic instruments—as Knopfler came back for “Piper to the End,” with its bittersweet lyrics about departed friends whom the narrator “will meet again.”
A second explosive appreciative roar erupted, and the entire band formed a single line to bow. Surely this was it.
But no, one more to cap the evening in the form of the old Dire Straits melody “Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero,” a similarly woeful composition performed with heart and painfully realized energy—and all without any lyrics whatsoever.
Still the crowd wanted more, but after two hours, this great bard of English song was done. No “Sultans of Swing,” no “So Far Away” or “Walk of Life,” and perhaps that was apt. Knopfler’s set gave some for the crowd but mostly, it seemed, he was there to please no one but himself.
The rest of us were just grateful witnesses.