Money For something
It was all about the guitar during Mark Knopfler’s gig at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Friday night, and his local fans couldn’t get enough of it.
The Dire Straits frontman fingerpicked his way through a career-spanning set, featuring songs from his former band to music on his most recent solo release, 2018’s “Down The Road Wherever.” The near-capacity crowd that came out to see the show was mostly older, and for the bulk of the concert they were happy to just sit quietly and admire the guitarist’s instrumental prowess.
When the houselights shut off around 7:45 p.m., the musicians took the stage with Mr. Knopfler walking on last. As a Brit, his arrival was appropriately introduced by an announcer dressed in a Union Jack shirt. As his group proceeded into the shuffling rhythm of “Why Aye Man,” Mr. Knopfler emerged from stage right dressed casually in a plaid shirt and a baseball cap, its brim obscuring his face in a silhouette the entire concert.
From the outset it was apparent that Mr. Knopfler, now 70 years old, has lost nothing when it comes to commanding a six string. With nonchalant effort, he bounced through the melodic fills and solos on the opening number as well as the metallic slide guitar of the second song, “Corned Beef City.”
In the singing department, Mr. Knopfler gave a decent Mark Knopfler vocal performance. His whispery, sometimes haggard baritone while not technically brilliant or even objectively good, didn’t sound any better or worse than a familiar audience member would expect from him. Though aged since his days in Dire Straits, any vocal differences between him and his former self were negligible.
Helped by the Bowl’s high quality acoustics, the band sounded well balanced overall, but clearly dominant in the sound mix was Mr. Knopfler’s guitar. Though backed by a ten-piece band with certain members frequently trading eight-measure solos with him, the guitarist’s supporting players played in a tasteful rather than virtuosic fashion that never came close to upstaging him. However, the sheer number and variety of instruments played by some of the members was enough to impress, and Mr. Knopfler even pointed it out when he introduced the band members.
“We had a little count up in the band, how many instruments I play: One. … The band can play 49,” he said.
Focused on performing material from his solo career, Mr. Knopfler only occasionally dug into the Dire Straits catalogue and didn’t always stick to the obvious choices. Well known songs like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Your Latest Trick” added satisfying moments of romance and relaxation to the show, respectively, though the former didn’t elicit as big a reaction from the crowd as one would expect. Perhaps most glaringly, Dire Straits’ first hit “Sultans of Swing” was absent from the set.
The performance proceeded competently if rather uneventfully for the first several numbers until Mr. Knopfler sat down on a stool to play songs from his latest record. Prior to the laid-back tunes “My Bacon Roll” and “Matchstick Man,” he spoke to the audience in a “VH1 Storytellers” manner and proved he was adept at bantering with the crowd. Though the fans were by in large silent during the numbers, they were in good humor and receptive as he told stories behind his new songs and joked with them.
Recalling past times he came to play in Santa Barbara, he said, “When I first came, it was a Greyhound bus, but the time after that it was to play and I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m kind of a young dude.’ And now I just think, ‘I’ve gotta retire.’ ”
The audience shouted a collective “No!,” to which he replied, “But exactly. You see, you just remind me that this is the best thing ever. … So I’ll probably just proceed until I trip onstage and fall over.” The crowd laughed and cheered.
Mr. Knopfler continued the sit-down setup for the next two numbers, “Done With Bonaparte” and “Heart Full of Holes.” The former, a folk song about a foot soldier in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army who wants to leave during its invasion of Russia, had the back-row musicians like percussionist Danny Cummings, drummer Ian Thomas, and pianist Jim Cox come down from their risers to play a Celtic drum, a tiny drum kit, and accordion, respectively. With a bouncy melody and old timey charm, it was a set highlight.
The evening’s sit-down portion came to a close and the show resumed its previous vibe. However, the audience was more engaged by this time. Cheers resounded upon hearing the tender saxophone riff of “Your Latest Trick,” and the most noticeable reaction came when the band brought the energy up on the next number, “Postcards From Paraguay.” Throngs of people in the front section got up from their seats and crowded the front of the stage, vibing to the song’s Latin rhythm with their hands raised.
“Speedway at Nazareth” closed out the main set on a rocking note, and Mr. Knopfler showed some of his most entertaining guitar playing of the night as he produced instrumental flourishes that were as frenetic as they were melodic. After departing the stage momentarily, the band returned and for its first encore, the popular Dire Straits hit “Money For Nothing.” The moment the Mr. Knopfler broke into the song’s overdriven guitar riff, the whole house rose to its feet.
Rather than concluding with a No. 1 hit, Mr. Knopfler and his band departed the stage once more and returned again to play the instrumental “Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero,” from the soundtrack the guitarist produced for the 1983 Bill Forsyth film “Local Hero.” Whether or not the audience was familiar with this particular cut, the instrumental had a beautiful melody that carried a feeling of finality.
That this was the last song of the evening wasn’t enough for the audience, though. Upon its conclusion, the houselights remained off for an extended period and the crowd cheered hoping for another encore. When the lights suddenly came on, a collective groan arose throughout the venue, so Mr. Knopfler clearly left the audience wanting more. Perhaps they were hoping to hear “Sultans of Swing.”