Brothers in two visions of reinvention: Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan

Last night I had the good fortune of finding myself with a ticket for the latest stop on the Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan tour. Today, these are my thoughts about what I heard:  

I. Mark Knopfler

  • Knopfler was the dominant force behind the short-lived, but hit-making British pop-rock band Dire Straits. During that time he honed a signature guitar sound that makes his playing instantly recognizable.
  • Since Dire Straits, Knopfler has pursued a long and somewhat diverse solo career, apparently now focusing on what I would call the folk sounds of England and Wales. Cf. Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die.”
  • Knopfler opened the concert, and his set consisted entirely of these British folk sorts of songs. None of them were recognizable to me, and judging by the audience’s reaction, I was in good company. All of them were pleasant listens, though, and I generally enjoyed his set.
  • His signature guitar sound was there early, although it seemed to have disappeared by the end of his time on the stage. Not sure what to make of that.
  • Brits like Knopfler and Steve Winwood, who incorporated traditional British folk into their sounds in the 1970s seemed to have done so as part of an eschewing of the American blues many of their countrymen were so eagerly adopting at that time. (Winwood has been explicit on this point.) Still, as the concert wore on, I detected more than a hint of Mississippi hill country blues rhythms and feel in Knopfler’s songs.
  • Knopfler had a much bigger band than I’d expected, comprised of about six or seven members in addition to himself, and they were central to my only real critique of his performance, which is centered around the notion that we were there to hear Knopfler, not his band. No one was asking him to be Steve Vai or Leslie West, but we were asking him to be Mark Knopfler and let it rip, something he never did last night. I got the feeling he was trying to perform as part of a complete band, rather than playing over top of a supporting cast. His touring band was fine– not stellar by any means– but they’re just that: a touring band. Mercenaries. Hired guns to let the star do his thing. Whether he’s a shy performer or harboring grander illusions about this group of musicians, he didn’t command the spotlight last night. Perhaps he wanted to show the audience that he remains a creative artist by letting that spotlight shine on the compositions themselves, rather than his own instrumentation alone.

II. Bob Dylan

  • Dylan in 2012 is supposed to be a known entity: an incoherent mumbler who’s growl is more of a grumble and who’s once-memorable songs are now as enigmatic as his life has always been, with both growing moreso by the year. I saw Dylan about ten years ago on his tour of minor league baseball parks with Willie Nelson, and that description was entirely accurate. It seemed like all was lost for Dylan, whether of his own volition or otherwise. Some sort of sad waste. The worst sort of nostalgia act.
  • Dylan has largely become that caricature, and it’s so widely acknowledged that a review of one of his concerts today could have been written a year or more ago and nobody would even notice. (In fact, it looks like The Grand Rapids Press’ John Serba did exactly that.) Doing so today would be a mistake, though.
  • In his unsurrprisingly obscure autobiography of sorts, Chronicles: Volume One, two emphases bubble up through the muck: 1) he was really into Dave Van Ronk, and 2) he held strongly to a folk-music notion of storytelling through song. What the first point means is that the Coen brothers are going to make a movie about Van Ronk as a part of our never-ending quest to understand Dylan. What the second point means is that, for Dylan, a folk singer would never sing a song exactly the same way twice because he or she was primarily interested in conveying a story or message, not in mimicking a precise version of the piece as might one focused purely on entertainment. Understanding this second point is critical to understanding today’s Bob Dylan.
  • When I saw him ten years ago, Dylan’s performance truly was a muddled mess of murky malarkey, and it was unenjoyable for that. Last night, though, was a breakthrough in that it sounded like he really had found a way to perform his songs in musically new ways that were both enjoyable to listen to– his band is great, and I liked his piano and harmonica work too– and drew the audience into the words of songs so familiar from years of listening to their original recorded versions. No, he did not enunciate every word, but there was enough there to be engaging. I really do think last night’s performance evidenced an all-around successful reinvention, which strikes me as what he’s been shooting for in live performance all along. I don’t have the music theory vocabulary to explain how he did this, but a comparison of Peter Frampton’s cover of “Jumping Jack Flash” with the Rolling Stones’ original sort of gets at the idea.
  • I liked the song selection, which began with a tune from The Basement Tapes (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”) and included maybe my favorite of his, Love and Theft‘s “Mississippi,” along with lots of big Dylan staples: “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and a “Blowin’ in the Wind” encore. I also was pleased with “Visions of Johanna,” as well as the remainder of the set, which included generous helpings of honky-tonk shuffle, blues, and Americana rock and roll.

III. The Scene

  • Both performers, but Knopfler in particular, would have benefited from a smaller venue. The 10,000-seat arena wasn’t the friendliest for some of the detailed string and woodwind work his band was putting forth.
  • The venue was more than half empty. Chalk it up to a Monday night, the above-discussed reputation of Dylan, or the fact that Knopfler on his own hasn’t achieved the sort of name recognition he had with Dire Straits, but the upper bowl was completely empty, and the lower bowl was probably about 80% occupied. A noticeable number of people left before Dylan even took the stage. It wasn’t really embarassing– I get that people might prefer to see Knopfler over Dylan at this point– so much as it was odd. As explained above, those who left early or skipped out entirely missed a very enjoyable performance.

3 thoughts on “Brothers in two visions of reinvention: Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan

  1. Nice review. Disappointed to hear Knopfler was not a more engaging performer as I’d like to see him – more for his solo work than a Dire Straits greatest hits session. How was “Blowing in the Wind”? Of all of Bob’s tune’s that would be the most eye-rolling inducing for me, but I’d happily be proven wrong. Seems like he had a decent set list overall, nothing earth shattering, but decent.

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