Knopfler is best known for filling arenas around the world in the 1980s with his band Dire Straits. But in the last 15 years since the band’s break-up, he’s made as many solo studio albums as he did with his old band. His solo career has been more understated but no less accomplished, relying less on incredibly eloquent guitar solos and more on his love of American roots music and the empathetic storytelling in his songwriting.
In concert, though, you can’t keep a good guitar god down. Knopfler’s guitar work again moved to the foreground, the notes rich and assured, the solos seeming to take flight where Knopfler’s soft, deep vocals stay resolutely earthbound. It’s that contrast that defines so many of Knopfler’s songs, often first-person narratives about seemingly ordinary men — the unemployed factory worker in “Telegraph Road,” the farmer with his mail-order bride in “Prairie Wedding.” While Knopfler’s lyrics tend to stay simple and matter-of-fact, it’s left to his guitar to express the yearning in their hearts.
Knopfler came with an absolutely incredible seven-piece band, an amalgamation of some colleagues from his Dire Straits days, like keyboardist Guy Fletcher, and some fantastic Nashville session musicians. That includes bassist Glenn Worf, a Madison native, who proved equally at ease slapping a giant upright bass or laying down a solid groove on electric.
Knopfler said he had come across Worf playing in a small Nashville club and thought he had discovered this great unknown talent, only later realizing that he was highly in demand as a session musician.
“He’s just the greatest musician you could ever hope to find,” Knopfler said, as the audience gave Worf a loud home-state welcome. “Every day he lugs that big upright lady into a small room. He says it’s a war of attrition, but he gives as good as he gets.”
Also in the band were Matt Rollings, a terrific piano player who frequently plays in Lyle Lovett’s Large Band, and Tim O’Brien, a Grammy-winning bluegrass musician in his own right. Taken together, Knopfler’s band could seemingly do anything, from delicate Celtic tunes to Delta slide-guitar blues.
The band also knew how to rock, too, building songs like the epic 14-minute “Telegraph Road” to sweeping finales that brought the audience on its feet for several standing ovations during the night. For “Sultans of Swing,” Dire Straits’ first hit, Knopfler dismissed all but the core guitar-bass-drums line-up and played a satisfying lean and rocking version, his guitar doing somersaults over the band’s tight groove.
“That was some historical four-piecery, there,” Knopfler joked afterward. “It’s still just a great blast to play that.”
The set ended with “Telegraph Road,” and then the band came out for an encore of two “Brothers in Arms” songs, the haunting title track and the sweet “So Far Away.” The band began to assemble at the front of the stage for its traditional group bow, but the audience was still cheering so loudly that Knopfler called an audible, sending them back to their instruments for just one more song.
He didn’t want to leave just yet. The feeling was mutual.
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