Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Music: The Mark of Knopfler

Two personal takes on Mark Knopfler in Bangalore, circa October 2005

HE’S GOT gravel in his voice. His spatulate fingers fly over the guitar frets. He’s got communication skills that most CEOs would die for. But are those reasons enough for a guesstimated 20,000 people to gather at Bangalore’s Palace Grounds on March 7 for a magical Mark Knopfler concert? Brought to town by DNA Networks’ T. Venkat Varadhan, it had the city swinging. 

Mark who? The quip from a nattily-suited young executive in the Rs. 2,500 enclosure nearly results in a lynching. Why are you here, you villager, groans his neighbour in a fluorescent floral shirt, brandishing his mobile phone. A pretty Manipuri belle in a hot pink cut-offs, teetering on stiletto heels, sticks her tongue out at the offender. Standing all around them are Dire Straits fans, packed shoulder to shoulder, cosy as only music buffs can be. Collectively addicted to Knopfler, the face and driving force behind the 1977-launched British band, its lead guitarist and lyricist/ vocalist. 

Every murmur dies out once the five time Grammy winner appears live on the  3000 sq. ft. stage, highlighted by powerful crossbeams of ceiling-suspended ‘flying lights’.  But he is no longer the Knopfler of the headband-held locks. He’s a more sober variant at 55, his white shirt tails hanging out over groomed blue jeans. He’s jowlier, he’s paunchier, he’s balder, with great glasses on.

But who cares about his looks? Once he launches into the opening chords of “Why, Aye Man,” his sheer talent reaches out. The audience sings along as one. Raised arms wave from side to side, amidst fluttering scarves. Cameras on mobile phones capture the magic. Heads sway in time. Hands clap in rhythm. 

Requests rend the air. “How about Sultans of Swing?” “Hey, Mark, give us Walk of Life. Please, please, please, I could die after that,” sings a local crooner to her onstage idol, her arms outstretched from our second row of standees. “Money for Nothing, yaar! That’s your best hit ever,” yells a 30-plus ponytailed fan, clad in a black Iron Maiden T-shirt.

Knopfler’s riffs get raunchier. More incandescent, by the number. His solo slides glide into popular songs, with an entirely individual lyrical phrasing. His fingers pick, tease and coax, pluck and sing. Knopfler in action hints at the blues, echoes country melodies, brings alive jazz dives. The Seventies-Eighties mood of the Dire Straits is all-pervasive. His new back-up band is in great sync ~ Glenn Worf (bass), Richard Bennett (guitar), Guy Fletcher (piano) Chad Cromwell (drums) and Matt Rollings (organ/ accordion). 

Knopfler often changes guitars in performance. We keep him company on his sometimes pentatonic, five-note bluesy journey. It’s a powerful Fender for one number, a Martin the next, a Gretsch 6120 for a third, picking from a range of 15 lined up on stage. Old times roll as this sultan swings with his red-and-white Stratocaster.

Within the crowd, memories coast down the musical backstreets, annulling time. Does Knopfler onstage faintly resemble the Glasgow-born guy who was a rock critic, taught English, and was a rookie reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post? Or the teenager who longed for an expensive, elusive hot-pink Fender Strat? Did he spend hours imitating his musical icons, including Jimi Hendrix, Scotty Moore and Django Reinhart? Was it the band’s first drummer Pick Withers whose friend named them ‘Dire Straits’ in the mid-70s because they were so stony broke? Knopfler today has played with a galaxy of greats, including Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Sting, James Taylor, and Tina Turner.

Vitally alive, Knopfler’s smokey voice spins out ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with infinite tenderness, or the more recent ‘Sailing to Philadelphia’ with beguiling drive. What sets this quiet man of rock and roll apart? His songs. His words. His narrative connections into the everyday. We agree on that.

That’s what makes his stories connect with us. For isn’t ‘Sultans of Swing’ about a fledgling music band? Wasn’t ‘Money for Nothing’ jotted down in an electrical appliances store? Isn’t a soldier dying in a battlefield at the core of ‘Brothers in Arms’? As for ‘Boom like That,’ doesn’t it take off on Ray Krock, who founded McDonald’s?

The concert momentum picks up against an LCD cloth that creates a starry backdrop. As Knopfler refuels with cold tea onstage, we surge to his musical travelogue. From ‘What it is’ to ‘Wild West End,’ from ‘Prairie Wedding’ to ‘Song for Sonny Liston,’ from ‘Done with Bonaparte’ to ‘Donegan’s Gone,’ his spoken-word growl rings true.

Knopfler’s flitting fingers on the classic Fender tantalize us on the blow-up screen. He haunts us with drawn-out blues chords, lilting solos, cadenced patter, even as he perches on a stool for a few numbers.

“Knopfler must be dead tired, after playing live at Mumbai on March 5,” observes a DJ behind me. “But he’s such a pro. He’s still electrifying, isn’t he?”

As the final notes of Knopfler’s 1982 instrumental movie track, ‘Local Hero,’ slide into the night, we wake to a realization. That his music still defies categorization. Was that a Celtic lilt coming our way? Or a bluegrass banjo-like sound? Is it rock? Is it blues? It is modified jazz? Is it rooted in folk notes? At the end of a superb show, who cares about labels?

Knopfler has traveled wild spaces away from the Newcastle-on-Tyne boy inspired by his uncle’s harmonica and boogie-woogie piano. His avowed fans today include cricket top leaguer Sachin Tendulkar. And Abhishek Burman, 55, who flew down from Kolkata to visit his IT-centric son ~ and listen to Knopfler live.

“I rushed here from Goa for this concert,” says American Katya Miller, 22, who’s backpacking around India with a friend. “I’d never get a chance like this at home.”  

Ranvir and Shaila, both youthful BPO professionals, do not feel Knopfler belongs to another generation. “He’s totally today. A really cool dude, machaan,” stresses Ranvir. “It doesn’t matter that he’s my dad’s age.”

As ardent listeners, we remain grateful that Dire Straits steered clear of the punk strains raging around them in 1977. That Knopfler remains true to his own solo evolution since 1996, as witnessed by his 2004 second album, ‘Shangri-la.’ That the University of Newcastle conferred an Honorary Music Degree on him in May 1993. And that Knopfler came to us in Bangalore, dazzling us with his virtuosity, on the recovery path from a serious motorcycle crash in 2003 that made him cancel a tour. That’s the Mark of the man. 

*       *         *

Mark Knopfler: 'Sultans of Swing' at the Royal Albert Hall, 2005

MARK KNOPFLER onstage in Bangalore. A demigod come to life. At least to my neighbour, Tara Teresa Tasneem.

She doesn’t mind if the face and voice of the Dire Straits today comes as a package deal. With a jowly chinline. A craggy visage. A receding hairline. A camouflaged paunch. And outsize specs. All rendered glam by dazzling white shirt-tails over classic blue jeans. Yoked to electric fingers flying over the frets of his red-and-white Stratocaster, the yearning plaint of pentatonic blues.

“I’d give my best Kutchi biriyani and Mississippi Mud Pie for an evening with Mark. I bet he’ll prove to be the Sultan of Swing,” sighs TTT, post open-air concert, post dreamtime. “Wouldn’t you?”

I look away. I like the gravel-throat growl that passes for Knopfler vocals. I like his frantic, frenetic speaking guitar. I’m smitten as he belts out a poignant, teasing ‘Brothers in Arms.’ But I’d still stay true to my pin-up boys.

“I’m a finger fetishist,” I declare to triple T. “So, thanks, but I’d opt out. Knopfler’s not my style.”

“What’s wrong with his perfectly capable hands?” counters TTT. “Didn’t you watch him tease and pluck through those riddling riffs? I doubled up with pleasure when I listened to him do ‘Song for Sonny Liston.’ What’s with you?”

“I don’t like his spatulate fingers,” I say. “No matter how smokey Knopfler’s voice is, no matter how potent his lyrics are, give me Sting any day. Or even Paul McCartney. Their hands are elegant. Less vein-ribbed. More tapering fingers. Brilliantly buffed cuticles. That gets me going.”

“Even at 55, Knopfler had 20,000 people singing along with him at Bangalore’s  Palace Grounds,” TTT persists. “If that isn’t drop-dead appeal, what is?”

“I’ll tell you what is. Paul’s dreamy eyes. His slimline body profile. His teen-cute half-smile. His choice of a Linda Eastman or Heather Mills for company. It’s a beauty-brilliance combo that he’s into,” I sing. “Even at 61, he packed stadia around 13 European cities last year. That means over three million fans got to listen to him live since his return to the road in 2002. If that isn’t awesome, woman, turn over a new leaf…”

As TTT catches her breath, I hum under my breath: I love him, yeah-yeah-yeah.

Silence persists. Time for a second salvo. “What’s Sting got to do with it?” I continue, reaching for that invisible message in a bottle. “My lanky teen nephew freaks out on him, just as I do. Cross-gender. Cross-continents. Cross-genre. That’s his buzz…”

TTT butts in, “But what’s Sting done to match Knopfler’s ‘Boom Like That.’ Isn’t that a freaky take on the McDonald’s tycoon Ray Krock? My man’s got what it takes, grey cells, et al…”

“Hang on, triple T, that’s tripe,” I’m not ready for a truce yet. “Chunky isn’t hunky in my date book. Five Grammy awards can’t compensate for a physique gone to seed. Sting looks like a long, lithe god ~ and sings like a dream. And his music is politics unplugged, power-scanning rainforests, global injustices. He rocks, woman. Hand it to him.”

“My Mark’s played with Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. How’s that for a class act?” jeers TTT, nibbling at her pink-streaked locks. “He’s worked as a true blue Yorkshire reporter. He’s even taught English. Can your musical icons match that?”

“Sticky brainjam!” I launch into the fray. “Your Mark sang for mere profit. My activist Sting’s February 2005 Indian tour was to help with tsunami relief work. Haven’t you heard how he and his wife Trudi set up the Rainforest Foundation to fight for an eco-positive world? Like my Paul, Sting supports Amnesty International. And he has a mere  15 Grammy awards, including five with the Police.”

But triple TTT doubles up as a karate champ. It shows in her verbal armoury: “Don’t you dare knock down Knopfler. He’s the quietest hero from the world of quasi-rock. Aren’t his drawn-out bluesy chords seductive? Like the Celtic undertones to his folk-driven guitar?”

“McCartney is magic. Look at the causes he champions. Animal welfare. Vegetarianism. Minefield survivors. That’s if you don’t count breast cancer research and AIDS awareness,” I argue, silently tuning into ‘Mull of Kintyre.

“I sent up a fervent dua in 2003. I’m sure that helped Knopfler recover from the ugly motorcycle crash that cancelled his tour then,” croons TTT, more gentle on this track. “That’s how you got to listen to him live in our Bangalore backyard.”

“But Sting is almost an honorary Indian,” I insist, changing chords. “Lucky Ali heard him practicing amidst the maroon-ochre vibes at Dharamsala. He’s been to Gangotri. And is a yoga expert, to boot. He even auctioned his services as a yoga instructor to fund-raise for UNICEF…”

Notes negotiate. TTT and I agree to disagree. Down with spatulate fingers. Up with fine-toned, genteel hands that speak. And caress better than words. 

What’s so special about a Walk of Life? To me, giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon. Besides, I believe in yesterday.

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