It took Mark Knopfler a third of the way through his sold-out show Sunday night at the Palace to play one solid electric guitar riff. But from that point, starting with “Hill Farmer Blues,” he made it clear why he is listed in the top 50 all-time greatest guitarists on Rolling Stone’s list.
His voice and guitar remain the signature sound of Dire Straits, the band that brought him fame in the late ’70s. He played mostly post-Dire Straits music, but did dip into some of the great ones. “We will excavate one or two historical artifacts,” he told us early in the show.
“Romeo and Juliet” came halfway through the show, a beautiful, sad ballad that lifts and falls and lifts again without any effort. Knopfler is one of the most under-stated singers, and even on this one — a love story filled with drama — he more-or-less talks through his lyrics. He plays the guitar the same way, never screaming, but articulating within his razzle-dazzle zone.
He mostly sang slightly inside the band’s sound rather than out in front, letting the band create the excitement — and take it away — around his talk-singing. We could have used more guitar at the end of “Romeo and Juliet,” but we got plenty in other spots.
He followed with “Sultans of Swing,” his huge hit that dominated airwaves but is barely heard today. Here the band came out in full force, smooth and fast, Knopfler out in front this time. He let himself go on the guitar solo, nailing note for note the familiar recording, but taking his time to get there with some roundabout, speedy circular riffs.
He shared the stage with seven “lads” who played a variety of string instruments, keyboards and drums. They sounded best when playing up-tempo and with slight attack. But they also had a patient, old British folk sound — with a type of bagpipe, recorder, ukulele and more — to go with tunes like the beautiful instrumental “Father and Son,” “Privateering,” and “Corned Beef City,” an OK tune that could’ve been skipped.
Knoplfer opened with “Broken Bones,” a new one from his newest record “Tracker,” a cool, slick song that he wrote with J.J. Cale in mind. They never returned to this hip sound, and it made you think they could play pretty much any sound. Some of Knopfler’s band members have been with him 20-plus years, and at least one could play, according to Knopfler, 20-plus instruments.
“Postcards from Paraguay” presented another unique sound: It slid downhill smoothly and gently, with all eight musicians prodding it forward equally as a unit, no one stepping out in front at any point.
They played the Dire Straits song “On Every Street,” then moved into the big ones to end the show. “So Far Away” came across far cooler than the radio version. And then came “Going Home: Theme from Local Hero,” a wonderful tune from the early ’80s.
Knopfler is one of the great products of the MTV world — Dire Straits were on air for its start — and he hasn’t stopped moving his music forward with his writing, producing, recording and performing. Visually, he has clearly aged, but he still sounds like he did 30 years ago. It’s wonderful to hear him tell his stories — through his talking lyrics and his guitar work.
Given the range of music he put out Sunday night, and the pleasure he seems to have from performing, there may be more surprises from him yet.