“I’ve been thinking about this place all day,” mused Mark Knopfler incongruously. The character-free O2 Arena is not somewhere you’d want to think about for longer than it takes you to find your way out. In fact the reason for Knopfler’s musings was the grotty tower block where Dire Straits first got their act together 40 years ago in Deptford, “ just a short swim away”.
As he reminisced about his Deptford days spent lying on a beaten-up sofa endlessly strumming and picking away on his guitar it was clear that for him these were the happiest days of Dire Straits. Their subsequent ascent to superstar status in the greed-soaked 80s became an unfolding nightmare.
He’s still strumming and picking away. Now he’s doing it in the company of hand-picked highly accomplished professional musicians. The fact that he’s doing it in the kind of arena he used to shudder to play with Dire Straits show that it wasn’t size or popularity that was the issue; it was the hype, expectation and pressure. Now he can play his own music at his own pace. The fact that he can sell out the O2 followed by a couple of nights at the Royal Albert Hall is the validation of success on his terms.
Nearly half tonight’s show comes from Knopfler’s last two albums, Privateering and the new Tracker which in a revealing sign of the times is being given free to ticket buyers. Almost as revealing is that several songs have gained in stature from the CD versions, like Corned Beef City and I Used To Could enlivened by some great pub-piano playing and the jaunty Skydiver with Ruth Moody on backing vocals. You could quibble with the crowded sound – at times there were four guitarists strumming away and two keyboard players is arguably excessive for Knopfler’s roots-based songs – but you couldn’t complain about the quality of anyone’s playing.
There are also signs that Knopfler is fashioning new classics from his solo career, including Hill Farmer’s Blues from Ragpicker’s Dream which built at an irresistible pace, fired by some fine guitar picking, and Speedway From Nazareth from Flying To Philadelphia which grew into something altogether grander before your eyes./o:p
Over an hour had passed before the lights turned blue and the opening ripples of Romeo And Juliet sent a collective sigh around the arena. It’s not a song to be messed with and Knopfler wisely didn’t. The following Sultans Of Swing was largely unchanged as well although Knopfler’s fingers are having trouble with the famous twiddly bit at the end of the guitar solo./o:p
But Telegraph Road, which closed the show, and So Far Away which opened the encores, have both been adapted to suit the scope of the band he now has. Some of the dynamics of Telegraph Road got lost in the instrumental melee but So Far Away felt the benefit as Knopfler reclaimed it for his own purposes../o:p
They bowed out, as always, with the theme from Local Hero, the song that flagged Knopfler’s new direction back in 1983, more than a decade before he was able to start putting it into practice. Cozy glows all round.