Dire Predictions

M ark Knopfler shrugs a lot. A year ago he was just the lead guitarist/songwriter/singer for a critically respected British

Mark Knopfler shrugs a lot. A year ago he was just the lead guitarist/songwriter/singer for a critically respected British blues band that played 20-minute songs, Dire Straits. Now, thanks to "Money For Nothing," a ZZ Top parody that happened to hit Number One, this small man with a balding John McEnroe "hairstyle" is an arena giant, a jukebox hero and an heir apparent to such names as Page, Clapton, Townshend--and yes, Van Halen. Mark Knopfler just doesn't know quite what to do with his sudden fame.

It's not that he's a total unknown: Dire Straits has long been an arena headliner in Europe, where consequently they used to do 90 percent of their touring. But who could have guessed that America would embrace such an esoteric and forgotten art as the blues, especially when played with the bombast of The Who and the lilt of a Celtic wedding dance? Certainly not Knopfler.

At least, he didn't seem entirely comfortable in front of 10,000 newly made fans in Portland, Me., last Monday. He let them applaud for five minutes at a stretch before proceeding with the songs. He called one of them a "jerk" for throwing a potentially lethal t-shirt at him as he started "Money For Nothing." And, with the exception of a couple minutes of premeditated camp, he generally did his best to ignore the lot of them.

Everything about the show was premeditated--and therefore safe. From the in-the-dark opening of "Ride Across The River" to the detonating of a mushroom cloud in the second-to-last number, "Brothers In Arms," Knopfler could do no wrong. All he had to do was slouch there, look cool, play the same solos as on the albums, mumble the lyrics and let 10,000 rock pilgrims lap him up.

Now, this is not to say that the Dire Straits show wasn't cool. "Money For Nothing" (previously considered here as Knopfler's worst composition) turned into a long grungy blues jam on a Steinberger. "Wild West End" was a nice--if obvious--choice to let second guitarist, Jack Sonni, do some mellow jamming. "Private Investigations" came off terrifyingly well, although probably more due to the volume than anything else. And "Romeo And Juliet" and "Why Worry Now" were the tear-jerkers of the show. All in all, they proved that Dire Straits may be the world's tightest rock band.

But if the best compliment you can give Straits is that they don't make any bad mistakes, their worst insult is that they don't make any good ones either. Nothing in the Portland show deviated in any significant way from the live album, Alchemy, recorded two years ago, except that the band had nine more songs from which to choose. Because Knopfler strives for perfection in the studio--and because he succeeds half the time--he tries to make his live songs sound like very loud copies of the songs on record--which he succeeds at almost all the time. Come on, Mark, this is America. We want a cover or two.

Two bright spots on the excitement front are the two new touring members: saxophonist/flutist Chris White and the above-mentioned Sonni. White has a good sense of when to play dirty and when to play clean, a sense of controlled mistake that this group of mostly Brits definitely needs. Also, he has a nice habit of walking over the grand piano to get to the other side of the stage. Sonni gives the ax men their mobility, inciting bassist John Illsey to dance and Knopfler to smile, while slipping in some pretty nice guitar licks himself.

Sonni certainly shrugs a lot, too. A year ago, he owned a guitar store in Greenwich Village, the only distinction of which was that a certain British rock star used to shop there. Because said star (whose last name happens to be Knopfler) runs through rhythm guitarists like Ex-lax through Ronald Reagan's digestive tract, Sonni joined up and became a juke-box hero and heir apparent and all that good stuff.

In any case, Sonni adds a bit of amateurism--and thus excitement--to the band, something it needs if it wants to last as an arena headliner in this country. Personally, I hope Dire Straits doesn't. They were much more fun and comfortable when they were a good British blues band who played 20-minute songs.