All hail Mark Knopfler at London’s Royal Albert Hall (6/3)

London’s Royal Albert Hall must be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the many grand concert venues in London. Beautifully round and symmetrical, the building exudes both gravitas and serenity. Used extensively for classical music, including the world famous Promenade concerts and with a seated capacity of over 5,000, the hall was built in 1871 as a memorial to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s dearly loved consort. It fulfils the Prince’s vision of a central hall that would be used to promote understanding and appreciation of the Arts and Sciences. Its location at the heart of the South Kensington estate, bounded by museums and seats of learning, and facing Hyde Park, is as good as it gets.

The Hall’s imposing exterior is matched by its richly decorated red and gold interior, and crowned by a domed stained-glass skylight. It fulfils its remit as a multipurpose building by hosting all kinds of live music as well as exhibitions, public meetings, scientific symposiums, award ceremonies and even shows from the likes of Cirque du Soleil. For the past week it has been home to ex-Dire Straits guitar hero, Mark Knopfler and his band of seriously good musicians. Now turned 60, Knopfler might be excused for sitting down for virtually all the performance. But this is no ordinary repose but an ergonomic swivel chair, designed to aid recovery from a trapped nerve in the back that the artiste suffered a while ago. Though he has since had a clean bill of health, Knopfler clearly has taken to the chair so much, he’s decided to stick with it. A case of “Money for Sitting”?

So to the gig itself. Most seats were taken when support Kate Walsh took the stage, accompanied by cellist, the deliciously named Jo Whippy. Walsh is among the cream of British singer-songwriters without necessarily the profile of some of her more hyped contemporaries. Her exquisite voice was as comfortable in this relatively vast arena as it is in an intimate club room, soaring and wavering, hitting high and low notes with ease, yet at all times retaining an edge and vulnerability. Her skilled guitar and piano work enhanced by the interweaving cello allowed the songs to shine through. Starting with the sheer warmth of “The Seafarer” from her last album, Light And Dark, Walsh hit the heights with the achingly sad title track from that record and a beautifully understated version of “A Little Respect” by Erasure. Her six-song set was over too soon and generously received by an audience who largely will have been sampling Kate Walsh for the first time. We can only hope they come back for more. If you ever wanted evidence of the power of live music to move you and take you to pretty much anywhere you might like to go, then here it was.

It’s hard to believe but it’s 15 years since Dire Straits called it a day, since when main man Mark Knopfler has released a string of solo albums, penned soundtracks and collaborated here there and everywhere. The guitarist pitched up with an eight-piece band and a change of guitar – in one case, two – for virtually every song. His swivel chair position allowed him to survey the stage and turn to cue various members of the band, not that these mostly seasoned pros really required any tutoring.  The set kicked off with “Border Reiver”, the opening missive from his autumn 2009 release, Get Lucky. It was a fairly safe bet as the song set the tone for much of the set, Knopfler’s newer stuff contemplating the lives and times of itinerants, musically imbued with a Celtic air that touched at times on the melancholic.

The opener was followed by two from Knopfler’s second solo effort, Sailing To Philadelphia, “What It Is” and then the title track, highlighted by a lyrical beginning and long eloquent end solo. Despite a great overall sound balance, which allowed the interplay between electric and acoustic instruments to weave some magical stuff, Knopfler’s lazy drawl was less distinct than it might have been. “Coyote”, from the artiste’s third solo album, The Ragpicker’s Dream, signalled a change in pace. Bassist, Glenn Worf, switched from electric to double bass, to drive the song along a dark, dirty swamp rock path. The mood switched back to a quieter, more contemplative vibe with “Prairie Wedding”, heralded by a gentle insistent guitar theme and decorated with rich, deep vocals from Knopfler, before rockier times returned with “Hill Farmer’s Blues”.

Getting on for halfway through the set, it seemed that everything had been played immaculately and was being well received by a patient audience, though nothing had quite set the place a-buzz. Glancing upwards, you suddenly become aware of the huge sound panels arcing from the ceiling like clusters of giant mushrooms. The reverie was interrupted as Knopfler picked out the opening notes of “Romeo And Juliet” from Making Movies and the first Dire Straits number of the night made the audience come alive. The vocals are also that bit clearer when you know all the words. Knopfler even swapped guitars before finishing the song with a short burst of electric.

If that song went down well, it was nothing compared to the reaction given to “Sultans Of Swing” from Dire Straits first self-titled album. This one gets a standing ovation and was played with passion by a band stripped down to two guitars, bass and drums, with all of Mark Knopfler’s trademark licks in tact. The guitarist was recently quoted on his reaction when audiences ask for the old stuff: “The thing about the old Straits songs is that they are signposts for people’s lives. Obviously I’ll play them differently here and there to keep it alive and meaningful to me, and away from a cabaret thing. But there are times, like the twiddly bits at the end of “Sultans”, that if you don’t do your twiddly bits, the world’s not right for people. I like playing the old songs, I wrote them and people like to hear them, it’s as simple as that.” It seemed that this particular audience couldn’t agree more.

Two songs from the solo years followed. “Done With Bonaparte” from Golden Heart was memorable for Michael McGoldrick’s sweetly resonant accompaniment on the Uileann pipes and “Marbletown” from The Ragpicker’s Dream, an acoustic country blues song with a particularly extended folksy coda. The impressive title track from Knopfler’s latest record, “Get Lucky”, then got its airing, gently building from a soft acoustic opening into waves of Celtic flute and mandolin. The pure country of “Speedway At Nazareth” then developed from a rootsy start to full blown rock, during which Knopfler finally stood up for the job.

The main set drew to a close with the episodic Dire Straits opus, “Telegraph Road”, from Love Over Gold. From a simple flute opening, this near symphonic epic was delivered masterfully with successive calms before the storm of an ending. The band took lengthy, good-humoured bows and remained on stage as beers were brought on and fans breezed, rather than surged, towards the stage. There was no need for the band ritual of going off and coming back on. This was more like a party down the village hall, albeit a rather grand one. The encore you might have bet on, “Brother In Arms”, followed together with “So Far Away” from that same million selling album. Both were delivered with the same love and care as the previous 13 tunes.

“Piper to the End” closed the show. The final track on Get Lucky, the song is a lament dedicated to Knopfler’s late uncle who was killed in action in World World II. The melody bows to that of “Wild Mountain Thyme”, itself a hybrid of a much earlier song from the late 18th century, “The Braes of Balquhidder”. Knopfler’s take has a universality of theme and provides a fitting end to an evening of controlled emotion and exemplary playing. Mark Knopfler has been there, done that in spades, got the walk-in wardrobe as well as the t-shirt and can now express himself more eloquently than almost any elder statesman of rock you might care to list. It was a pleasure to see him at work.

Set List: Kate Walsh
The Seafarer
Light And Dark
A Little Respect
Your Song

Set List: Mark Knopfler
Border Reiver
What It Is
Sailing To Philadelphia
Prairie Wedding
Hill Farmer’s Blues
Romeo And Juliet
Sultans Of Swing
Done With Bonaparte
Get Lucky
Speedway At Nazareth
Telegraph Road

Brothers In Arms
So Far Away
Piper To The End


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