British guitar hero Mark Knopfler ambled through a staid but sparkling two-hour set Tuesday at Denver’s stately Buell Theatre. Backed by seven tactical all-stars — like Colorado’s own Tim O’Brien — and armed with a swirling rotation of flutes, penny whistles, mandolins, banjos, fiddles and bouzoukis, Knopfler displayed the soulful and haunting style that has earned him legions of fans. Despite that boisterous support following each tune, he’s a reserved fellow, seeming, at moments, unhappy to be on stage.
Touring in support of last fall’s “Get Lucky,” Knopfler appears to have abandoned anything Dire Straits, embracing instead a folksy, Scottish-Celtic sound that waxes poetic. While fitting for an epic film involving, say, verdant Middle Earth and gallant halflings, it is hardly rocking.
He plays with a gentle, finger-picking style that is particularly nuanced and utterly Knopfler. He whispers his songs, a hush that apparently challenged the Buell’s sound engineer, who struggled to elevate Knopfler’s murmuring.
Knopfler has professed to owning about 70 guitars and he used a good many of them Tuesday. It was hard to keep up with his ever-changing lineup of stratocasters, telecasters and Les Pauls. Flanked by O’Brien on fiddle, mandolin, banjo and Vibroverb and Richard Bennett on an equally dizzying collection of electric 12-strings, acoustics and more, Knopfler had plenty of room to explore.
From the Highlander-esque opener “Border Reiver” to an almost Delta-jammy “Hill’s Farmer Blues” and a jiggy “Donegan’s Gone,” Knopfler offered a world tour via six strings. The expected “Romeo and Juliet” — he’s playing a near identical setlist each night of the “Get Lucky” tour — included a nifty cam on Knopfler’s headstock, allowing an intimate glimpse of his uniquely tempered claw-hammer picking. The crowd-tickling “Sultans of Swing” that followed also delivered Knopfler ample room for syrupy carousing, thanks again to his exceptionally gifted band, which dropped from seven to a cozy four-top for both “Romeo” and “Sultans.”
The show’s slow idle inched to rev toward the end of the 18-song setlist, with O’Brien, Bennett and Knopfler digging up a tasty three-way duel in “Marbletown.” An almost fiery — alright, it was a mere flicker of flame on a glowing ember — “Telegraph Road” featured that same rim-job rap of “Romeo” that sadly blurs both tunes together. Yet “Telegraph” marked the show’s high-point, with four guitarists rolling in admirable collaboration.
The anticipated encore “Brothers in Arms” revealed Knopfler’s most nostalgic and melodic tune, stirring many in the Buell to actually move with the tender tune. But it was a rambling “So Far Away” and “Piper to the End” that culled some dancing.
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Jason Blevins is a strange dancer, but that has never stopped him.
Brian Carney is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.