Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris

I saw Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris perform tonight at Radio City, along with shunn and our friend Colin. We sat separately; I had sold off the block of tickets I’d bought and scored a single front-row seat. It was a wonderful show, two unassuming but spectacular musicians sharing a stage, sharing songs, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

They kicked off with a few songs from their collaboration, All the Roadrunning, and then each of them performed a few songs alone. Emmylou did a song off Stumble Into Grace as Knopfler sat on a stool, backing her on acoustic without ever taking his eyes off her. Then he did a couple with her backing her, and then she went offstage. He came back up to the microphone with a glittering steel National, and started fingerpicking the intro to “Romeo and Juliet,” which is probably one of my all-time favorite songs. He’s clearly not tired of it, or tired of the beautiful melody. At the end, he traded the National for an electric, and played a gorgeous outro that quoted his original solo from the record a few times, but by no means duplicated it.

I have always loved Knopfler’s playing, but never focused on it as much as I did tonight. Here’s a rich rock star, surrounded by very talented backing musicians (“All multi-instrumentalists, except for me,” he said), but doing most of the work himself. His guitar was front-and-center for the entire show; the hired guns didn’t play his riffs for him or double him or carry him. And unlike most other rock-star guitar heroes, he didn’t showboat. Yes, he took most of the breaks, but when he gave the fiddle player a solo he did it with a grin and took obvious pleasure in the result. And his breaks were just beautiful, melodic and gentle and understated.

I probably should have realized this before now, but he plays with his fingers almost exclusively. He used a flatpick only a few times, for two songs at the end playing lead on what looked like a 50s Strat with a whammy bar, and one other time early in the set, playing open first-position chords on an acoustic guitar, backing Emmylou on a Paul Kennerly song. Most of the time, though, he planted two fingers on the body of the guitar and played with the other three fingers, sometimes doing what amounted to fingerpicking patterns, other times just plucking and pinching strings, or doing a variation of the Carter Scratch, playing bass with his thumb and strumming downwards with the nails of his other two fingers — he gets a really mean blues sound this way. But using fingers instead of a pick gives his playing tremendous warmth and subtlety.

For the final encore, they came out together, Emmylou with her big blonde Gibson and Knopfler with a red Strat. “I’m going to attempt a Mark Knopfler intro,” said Emmylou. “From the Introduction to Folk Music book, volume one. I never made it to Volume Two. Three chords and a hammer-on and you’re on your way. I’ve been making a living from it for thirty years.” And she played, alone, the intro to “Why Worry” as Knopfler sang it with her, grinning all the while. He picked up on electric, she kept the picking going, and their harmonies were beautiful.

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