At their peak, Dire Straits were quite a phenomenon; the Brothers in Arms tour set many records when it came through Australia in 1986. But since those heady days, front-man Mark Knopfler has carved out a solo career in a folk/blues vein that is more extensive than the Dire Straits back-catalogue, and his live shows now only tend to throw up a couple of nods to his previous band.
So with Knopfler showing only limited interest in this material, what happens to that songbook that was once so loved? The answer is The Dire Straits Experience. Much more than just a tribute band, it evolved from a request to former members of Dire Straits to put together a charity performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Dire Straits saxophonist Chris White has now brought this show on tour to Australia and New Zealand with a group of world class session musicians (with CVs that include backing the likes of Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Robbie Williams).
But none of it could have worked if there wasn’t someone capable of filling the formidable shoes of Mark Knopfler, whose distinctive guitar sound was integral to Dire Straits. This sentiment was underscored during the show in Adelaide on Saturday night when Chris White introduced the band. Getting to guitarist / vocalist Terence Reis, White admitted his first reaction to the suggestion of revamping Dire Straits was that it would be impossible to find anyone to take on the front-man role, but Reis had proven him wrong. The performance at the Festival Theatre was conclusive evidence of that.
Not only does Reis have the ability to reproduce Knopfler’s distinctive fingerpicking guitar technique, he possesses the same laconic vocal style. Indeed if you close your eyes you’d think you were experiencing Dire Straits at their prime. But this is more than just impersonation. All the important guitar licks are there, but Reis also improvises with them; he makes the solos his own in a very impressive display of guitar work which is worth the price of entry alone. He also throws himself into the songs with a passion that differs from Knopfler’s characteristically reserved performance.
Opening with 15 minute fan favourite “Telegraph Road” was a bold choice (this was usually saved for the end of set in the original band’s earlier days). But with its intricate arrangement and numerous guitar solos it was an effective way of putting to rest any doubts the audience may have held. Having adeptly pulled this off, it was clear we would be treated to something spectacular over the course of the night.
With the early appearance of mega-hits like “Walk of Life” and “Romeo and Juliet”, there seemed a possibility that the band might have peaked too soon, but the show was a reminder of how extensive and varied the Dire Straits repertoire is.
Ripping into a pacey version of “Tunnel of Love”, the appreciative crowd were now completely on board. Reis’ building guitar solo at the song’s conclusion was one of the highlights of the night.
In a nod to the band’s very early days, three of the ensemble exited the stage midway through the set, leaving only a four-piece to play songs from the first two albums: rarities that had been dropped from the Dire Straits live show by the time the band hit their stadium phase. It was a nice moment highlighting how the band had developed from a simple blues rock outfit before the more grandiose arrangements came along.
With Chis White acting as a bridge to the original line-up, it was fitting that the set-list featured saxophone driven songs such as “Your Latest Trick” and “On Every Street”.
The main set closed with a powerful and brooding rendition of “Brothers in Arms” followed by signature tune “Sultans of Swing”, with the lightning fingerpicking at the end garnering a standing ovation.
The encore once again showcased the calibre of these musicians. From behind the kit Ralph Salmins gave us the legendary drum solo introduction to “Money For Nothing” (something even Dire Straits had dispensed with following the ’86 tour). Appropriately the night finished with White’s soaring saxophone in the “Going Home” instrumental from Knopfler’s Local Hero soundtrack.
The Dire Straits Experience provided a very welcome opportunity to hear these dynamic tracks performed live again. Offering much more than a reproduction of the studio recordings, songs were presented in embellished arrangements that mined a wide range of dynamics. Also clearly evident throughout the two hour set was the pure enjoyment the musicians took in playing the material, making it sound fresh again. It was an infectious enthusiasm that spread through the initially reserved Adelaide audience.
Having seen Dire Straits at their stadium rocking prime, this current outfit compares very favourably. And with a complete back-catalogue of hits and album gems to draw from, plus the clarity of sound that comes hearing these songs in a purpose build music concert venue like the Festival Theatre, on some level it may even surpass the original.
Anyone who had even a passing interest in Dire Straits and can get along to one of these shows should rush to grab a ticket.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor
Photo courtesy of Kerry O’Brien Publicity