By Scott McLennan
Dire Straits and its string of hits made Mark Knopfler a well-known figure, but going solo gave him freedom to present a wider range songs.
Mark Knopfler plays such a clean and precise style of guitar that it’s easy to mistake him as even-keeled, perhaps even genteel—you know, a gateway artist to easy-listening bliss.
Knopfler blew apart any such misperceptions with the opening numbers of his brilliant two-plus hour concert Aug. 23 at Boston’s Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion. The just-turned-70 British guitarist, singer, and songwriter ambled onto the stage and deployed the firepower of his 10-piece band on “Why Aye Man,” a song about the struggles of immigrants seeking a better life. The upbeat pacing continued with the well-sketched slice-of-life number “Corned Beef City,” as Knopfler’s tasteful guitar lines cut across his bandmates’ raucous jams.
Knopfler then used “Sailing to Philadelphia” to conjure the more ethereal — and more strongly associated—aspects of his songbook. From there the concert unfolded into the myriad elements of Knopfler’s music, covering Celtic, jazz, country, R&B, rock, blues and folk, often with genres overlapping one another in a single song.
Knopfler is on tour supporting his ninth solo album, Down the Road Wherever. He worked in two songs from that record, the charmingly autobiographical young-man’s-blues “Matchstick Man” and amusing older-man’s-grumble “My Bacon Roll.”
Forming the band Dire Straits in 1977 was Knopfler’s best career move. Disbanding Dire Straits in 1995 was his second best career move. Dire Straits and its string of hits made Knopfler a well-known figure, but going solo gave him freedom to present a wider range songs. He is obviously proud of his past, playing five Dire Straits songs at his Boston concert. His audience likewise is glad to hear those numbers, as the old Dire Straits’ epic “Romeo and Juliet” earned the night’s longest and loudest ovation.
And with Dire Straits, Knopfler developed a signature style that still suits him well. His songs typically open with some sort of nuanced introduction — be it a horn solo or keyboard riff. Then he brings in his low-end, near-growl of a vocal before the remainder of the band eventually fills in the space and fully lifts the song to where Knopfler wants it to be. It’s a great combination of slow-burn and explosive, the roots of which were heard in the Dire Straits number “Once Upon a Time in the West.” The evolution of Knopfler’s style was well represented on “Speedway at Nazareth,” which culminated in a maelstrom whipped up by fiddler John McClusker, wood flute player Michael McGoldrick, drummer Ian Thomas, and percussion player Danny Cummings. Perfectly picked guitar notes, of course, rained down over all of it.
Knopfler wound down his concert with a couple of familiar numbers, Dire Straits’ MTV-era anthem “Money for Nothing” and the yearning-to-soaring instrumental “Going Home — Theme of Local Hero.” Those were clearly songs a Knopfler audience would want to hear, but in between them he inserted “Piper to the End,” a tune that expresses fidelity to a calling, wryly asserting an artist’s freedom.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, The Portland Press Herald and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.