Monday, May 11, 2015

Mark Knopfler - Sultan of The Guitar

To these ears there has never been a more outstanding guitar player than Mark Knopfler. What he does better than most of the men who shred for a living, and are revered for it, is that he frequently plays with tasteful restraint. It's not that he can't break your eardrums, he most certainly can, and he proved it with the phenomenal "Telegraph Road" from Love Over Gold but even when he demonstrates his virtuosity with one of his great solos it's always in service to the song, not merely an attempt to show off his chops. Why? Because the Scotsman is a very good songwriter too.

Knopfler has had four separate careers. Early on he was the leader of a quartet that started out as a little pub band. You should all know that outfit as Dire Straits.

Secondly, Knopfler is also a talented composer of movie soundtracks. Local Hero, Cal, and The Princess Bride are just a few on a larger list. Most of this music can be listened to as entities unto themselves rather than just as adjuncts to the films. You do not need to have seen the movies to appreciate them. It's telling that these albums have mostly been marketed as Knopfler's work and not simply as music from the films.

Next, there is Knopfler the collaborator. His sessions with The Notting Hillbillies, Emmylou Harris, and Chet Atkins prove he's not necessarily interested in being a star. In fact, one of the reasons he broke up Dire Straits was because he believed the band had gotten too big. He's happily shared the credit and even stepped back from the spotlight when working with others.

Finally, there is Knopfler the singer-songwriter. For the most part his guitar playing is no longer an event. Instead his soothing, Dylan-like baritone vocal chords are front and center.

Overall, Knopfler has consistently released high quality records and election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should be a certainty.

The guitarist also deserves a complete album by album retrospective. Unfortunately, he has far too big of a catalog to go down that road so what I'll attempt to do here is discuss Knopfler's best in chronological order.

Let's start at the very beginning.

Dire Straits (1978)
The band's debut LP was an unexpected commercial success highlighted by the big hit single, "Sultans of Swing." As always, Knopfler played his best and he proved early on that he knew how to write lyrics and craft a song. This record was a thankful departure from most new bands that arrived on the scene in the late 70s who were heavily into the new wave or punk and away from musicianship. If there is a fault with the album anywhere it's in the leader's singing. Knopfler sang better on all of his later records but his shortcomings here aren't enough to detract from the listener's enjoyment. His voice is not unpleasant. Overall, it's a sparsely arranged set that shows off Dire Straits' pub band roots perfectly.

Dire Straits - Making Movies (1980)
Knopfler outdid himself here with a seven song record, and the band's third, that included his best work to date: "Skateaway," "Romeo and Juliet," "Solid Rock," "Expresso Love, "and "Tunnel of Love" all received substantial airplay and deserved it. The great guitarist's vocals improved too (or recorded in a fashion that his deficiencies were compensated for). Knopfler's brother, David, who was second guitarist, left the quartet and the E Street Band's Roy Bittan assisted, giving the album more color with his keyboard work. With the possible exception of the last track, "Les Boys," Dire Straits third album is a winner and one of the best of the 80s.

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold (1982)
"Telegraph Road" is 14:23 of rock 'n roll bliss and Dire Straits' best song. It's a story about land development in Detroit, Michigan over several decades and how it's evolving landscape adversely affected a man's life. After the relatively quiet, mid-tempo main song ends it suddenly explodes into a speedy, blistering 4:00 jam session (similar to "Free Bird") that stills sends shivers down my spine all these years later. The hit was "Industrial Disease" another song about the state of of the working man, only this time in Britain. "Private Investigations" is not too shabby either. The whole album contains only five songs and is around forty-one minutes in length which is probably why some people have branded it as Dire Straits' prog-rock album. However, there is nothing progressive sounding about these songs even though it's more meticulously produced and ambitious than anything they previously released.

Mark Knopfler - Local Hero (1983)
This album, jointly Mark Knopfler's first solo work and his first soundtrack, was written about extensively on Bloggerhythms several years ago so there is no point in doing so again because my opinion of this work of art hasn't changed. You can read all about this moving, mostly instrumental, showcase for Knopfler's composing skills here.

Dire Straits - Brothers In Arms (1985)
Dire Straits' one and only international blockbuster is also their most diverse record. The famous guitar riff on "Money For Nothing" was once described as heavy metal for yuppies and that's accurate because while he can rock hard, Knopfler, unlike most headbangers, actually writes songs that are about something. Besides, the MTV favorite isn't down and dirty enough to be considered metal. "So Far Away" could be a J. J. Cale tune and "Walk of Life" has a definite rockabilly vibe. Then there is the tension of side two. Four songs, highlighted by the title track, are about war and political abuse. Although the band, whose lineup by this time was now mostly just Knopfler, bassist John Illsley, and whoever he recruited to play with them, would continue on for a while this platter was really the end of their glory years.

The Notting Hillbillies - Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time (1990)
This is the only album made by Knopfler's post-Dire Straits country band. He took lead vocals on "Your Own Sweet Way" but the rest of the time the singing was given over to the other members of the quartet. The album is a quiet outing in which the star blends into the background but he does contribute harmony vocals and his always classy guitar work. The band included singer-songwriter Brendan Croker as well as Steve Phillips who made guitars for Dire Straits. The keyboard player was Guy Fletcher, a later member of Knopfler's old band, who continued to work with him on many of his soundtracks.

Mark Knopfler - A Shot At Glory (2002)
Containing some of Knopfler's best movie music this soundtrack has three vocal tunes that sound as if they were quality leftovers from Dire Straits and the rest is instrumental music that combines electrified rock with Celtic folk music. Rock guitar is supplemented by bagpipes, fiddles, and accordions. Colorful all the way around.

Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris - All the Roadrunning (2006)
The pure country album reached number eight in the United Kingdom and went to number seventeen on the Billboard 200 in America. It was a collaborative effort with country star Emmylou Harris recorded over a seven year period before its 2006 release. The set is a unique blending of two voices that surprisingly complement each other well. Ten of the twelve tracks are Knopfler compositions, the other two were contributed by Harris. This album spawned a subsequent tour and DVD. Knopfler is the star but the presence of a female lead singer on his songs sends this record into a whole new dimension.

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