I can’t remember an opening act getting to play a full 75-minute set in a long time. And I can’t remember an opening act that deserved it more than Mark Knopfler at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum on Monday night.
Opening for Bob Dylan can’t be the easiest slot, given how slavish the devotion of some Dylanphiles. But the former Dire Straits singer/guitarist and his excellent seven-piece band delivered an eloquent set that showcased but never overplayed Knopfler’s well-earned title as a Guitar God. Knopfler also sat in and played a few songs with Dylan during his set.
Knopfler was touring behind his new 2-CD set “Privateering” – sort of. Due to a legal dispute with his long-time label Warner Bros, “Privateering” is available everywhere in the world except the United States. Which is, frankly, nuts. It was for sale at the merch table in the lobby, and can be bought online through third-party sites, and continues Knopfler’s enthusiastic exploration of roots music, from American blues to Celtic folk.
With “Privateering,” Knopfler has made more albums without Dire Straits than he has with, and has spent more time on the road with his current band of “happy wanderers” (his words) than he did with his arena-filling old band.
Because of that, Knopfler seemed to feel justified in focusing on his solo material and not play any of the Dire Straits song requests that came wafting in from the crowd. (I guess when you open for Dylan, you can do whatever you want onstage, assured that no matter what you’ll only be the second crankiest person on the bill.)
The show began with the Celtic rocker “What It Is,” which has Knopfler’s elegant electric guitar work in full bloom, but then downshifted into a lovely flute solo. Then the band went into the chugga-chugga blues-rocker “Corned Beef City,” a truck-driving song, of all things.
Knopfler’s band has serious chops, able to shift from potent straight-ahead rock to softer folk and back again with ease. The band includes Madison native Glenn Worf on upright bass, and although he’s played with Knopfler in Milwaukee a couple of times, I believe this was his first hometown show with the band. He got a big ovation upon being introduced by Knopfler, and there were hugs all around at the end of the show.
In his lyrics, Knopfler isn’t much for personal confessions, instead inhabiting the voices of other characters, often working-class folks living through history. The title track off “Privateering” is a lovely ode from a captain to his ship in the British fleet, while the Celtic “Done With Bonaparte” tells of a French soldier tired of following Napoleon into the hell of a battlefield.
The set closed with the gorgeous “Marbletown,” a tale of hobos spending the night in a cemetery that stretched out for over 10 minutes, the music ebbing and flowing like the tide, at one point reduced to just Worf and the violin player softly picking together. You could have heard a pin drop from the reverent audience, which is almost unheard of for an opening act.
Perhaps pleased by the enthusiastic response, the band huddled after “Marbletown” and decided to do one more, relenting to the Dire Straits fans and playing “So Far Away” to close the show.