A man in a Union Jack jacket announced the main attraction in the excitable style of a ringmaster at a boxing match. “Please welcome back to the Royal Albert Hall – Maaa-rk Kno-pfler!”
Cue applause, whoops, people jumping to their feet. But rather than vault the metaphorical ropes and strut around the stage soaking up applause, the man himself made a less than triumphal entry. There Knopfler was suddenly at his microphone stand, red-and-white Fender Stratocaster strapped to his body, singing the Dire Straits song “What It Is” with characteristic lack of fuss. The audience sat back down. It wasn’t going to be a night for knockout moves.
Knopfler’s undemonstrative nature, his craftsman-like application to music, has allowed detractors to label him boring. In an age of obsessive 1980s revivalism, his and Dire Straits’ un-hip reputation remains stubbornly in place. Play “Sultans of Swing” in some Shoreditch hipster haunt and you’ll empty it quicker than a fire alarm.
That, of course, is exactly as Knopfler would like it. The Glasgow-born, Northumberland-raised singer-guitarist prefers to go his own way, under the radar, immune to metropolitan fads, quietly mapping the point where, as he has said of his latest album Privateering, “the Mississippi Delta meets the Tyne”.
The tone at the Albert Hall, the first of five nights, was set by “What It Is”, an Edinburgh ghost story that travelled back in time via a mesmerising dialogue between guitar and flute. Privateering’s “Corned Beef City” detoured into workmanlike chugging rock, a 60mph-on-the-M1 tribute to trucking, but then the set picked up again with the new album’s title track, a flowing folk tribute to privateers, the state-sanctioned pirates who roamed the high seas “not quite exactly in the service of the Crown” in Knopfler’s neat phrase.
In his muted way, Knopfler is a British Isles version of the US blue-collar rocker, the Celtic fringes acting as his equivalent of Springsteen’s New Jersey. Fiddle, pennywhistle and uilleann pipes (a kind of Irish bagpipe), immaculately played by members of his impressive backing band, gave his tales of stoical working men a deep traditional resonance. Meanwhile support act Ruth Moody, guest vocalist on “I Dug Up a Diamond” and “Seattle”, evoked the absent sweethearts in Knopfler’s songs, the lure of home and hearth.
He played guitar throughout with customary lyricism, a folk fingerpicker in a rock idiom, riffs unfolding at unhurried pace and with a superb sense of space: the solo that rippled through “Sultans of Swing” was like a stone skimming gracefully over a lake. Self-deprecatory stage chat (“What can I tell you? Nothing much to say”) conveyed an innate suspicion of the limelight, and it was entirely typical that he chose to end with an instrumental, the theme to the 1983 film Local Hero. Sometimes it’s enough to let the music do the talking.