Ax, Naturally: Former Strait Man Mark Knopfler Still Keeps His Cool

A masterful musician and workmanlike writer who continues to connect --whether through allegorical tales of adventure or powerfully personal reflections that cut to the core -- impressed the hell out of longtime devotees and some random disbelievers at the 1stBank Center on October 29.

And his name isn't Bob Dylan.

While he was on the same bill as one of the most celebrated (and idiosyncratic) figures in American popular music, it was Mark Knopfler and the stunning skill of his seven-man band that stole whatever is left of Dylan's rolling thunder.

The gifted guitarist who formed Dire Straits in the 1970s mesmerized an audience that almost reached the 6,500-seat capacity in the barn-like venue on the first of two nights in Broomfield, Colorado, a turnpike suburb nestled between Denver and Boulder.

While the deified Dylan, 71, and simply Strait-forward Knopfler, 63, might share some of the same performance characteristics (one wiseacre in the beer line deemed this the Mumblestiltskin Tour), the gap between disappointment and satisfaction was as far apart as their eight-year age difference.

The UK's own Sultan of Swing will never match Dylan's Ruthian, Sultan of Swat legend here in America, but it was Knopfler who proved to be as relevant as ever, long after Dire Straits disappeared from the vernacular as quickly as "I Want My MTV" did on cable TV. He displayed an impeccably precise touch with pristine licks and finger picks, a handyman admired by fans who couldn't get enough.

No hidden tricks, no zany frills, no mindless chatter, no '80s headband and just a few surprises came from Knopfler and Co., who avoided most most of the predictable fan-friendly Dire Straits fare that made him rich and famous such as "Sultans of Swing," "Money for Nothing" and "Walk of Life."

Just effortless artistry on the Fender Stratocaster, Danelectro and several more valuable artifacts from his seemingly endless electric collection.

"So how you all doing?" Knopfler asked 12 minutes into a 75-minute set. "It's great to be back in the good ol' U.S. of A. ... We did a couple of months with Bob in Europe in the summertime, and we're just enjoying our heads off up here. We're just gonna wear 'em out for you tonight."

Knopfler, looking relaxed in a purple shirt with black polka dots, uncovered obscure gems mostly retrieved from his crowded solo attic. Leading off with "What It Is" (from Sailing to Philadelphia), he also reached back into his rich catalog of rarities during an 11-song set for "Hill Farmer Blues" (The Ragpicker's Dream) and "Song for Sonny Liston" (Shangri-La).

Of course, the businesslike Knopfler was there to do business, too, after releasing the prolific Privateering, the first double album (20 songs) of his 35-year career, in September. The Glasgow-born rocker with a fondness for folk who's made for Americana more than most Americans went quickly to that well, with four songs in succession off that album.

"Corned Beef City," perhaps the record's liveliest cut, was made boogie-woogier by Jim Cox's honky-tonk piano while Knopfler employed a slick slide. The title cut was slow and meandering, but "Yon Two Crows" was breathtakingly beautiful, with shining accompaniment from Mike McGoldrick on the flute and Cox on the scorned accordion (more on that later).

"I Used To Could" was another foot-stomper from a subtle artist who is known more these days for his mellower touch. While these songs were also played on the album by this gentlemanly bunch of musicians, what's fascinating about Privateering is the introduction of a female voice to the mix.

And though she was utilized primarily as a background vocalist, the addition of Canadian songbird Ruth Moody of the Wailin' Jennys was a wise choice on songs such as the epic "Kingdom of Gold," "Redbud Tree," "Go, Love" and "Seattle."

Singling out Moody in press material by saying "she is on the very top level of singers and songwriters out there and I can't take her off my jukebox," Knopfler hopefully will decide one day to bring her angelic soprano to the stage. And that's when listeners will definitely feel like they're knockin' on heaven's door.

Not that there's anything wrong with a good-ol'-boys club that's so unbelievably in tune with each other. Knopfler has performed with most of these guys since the mid-'90s, and the camaraderie seems genuine. He gave them all a proper introduction midway through the set, cracking wise only about Cox, a "keyboard genius" from Long Beach, California, who's "a great, great pianist; great, great Hammond organ player."

"The downside being, of course, is he can play the accordion, but even when we have the band vote, he brings it," the former Strait man joked, the roar of the crowd proving Knopfler's only stab at comedy was a success, too.

Other members included recent addition Ian Thomas on drums, one of the few cast changes from 2010's outstanding North American/Get Lucky tour (replacing Danny Cummings) who was called the "Pride of Wales" by Knopfler; multi-instrumentalist Guy Fletcher, Knopfler's longtime collaborator and right-hand man who was one-fourth of the Notting Hillbillies, their short-lived side project; John McCusker, "world-famous" fiddler and the "Pride of Scotland" who's essentially taking Tim O'Brien's spot on the roster this time around; Glenn Worf, of Madison, Wisconsin, his "ace of both basses," including the upright; and "master guitar player" Richard Bennett, who takes his ax to the max.

Grabbing a guitar resembling the National steel one that made the Dire Straits Brothers in Arms cover so iconic in 1985, Knopfler muttered to Bennett, "You and me, Rich? We'll start, and the rest of you, good luck."

Not they needed any as the tight unit glided flawlessly through "Done With Bonaparte," a history lesson off Knopfler's first solo album, Golden Heart, played as an uplifting Celtic ditty.

While Knopfler skillfully captures the mood of the period, whether it's during Napoleon's Moscow campaign or a modern-day "Romeo and Juliet" romance, his moving melodies are what pull you in.

For a diehard fan who gobbled up Dire Straits on vinyl since their 1978 eponymous debut, and even a 12-inch EP that included the novelty hit "Twisting by the Pool," it took his music from a little film with a massive heart to completely seal the deal.

I don't think there's ever been a time when a song and a movie meshed so well, complemented each other so perfectly and combined to affect me so profoundly as "Going Home," which closed out 1983's Local Hero.

Knopfler's ability to grab the listener has never diminished. Listen to the symphonic rush on the Last Exit to Brooklyn soundtrack (written and produced by Knopfler; performed by Fletcher) or experience the ebb and flow of the nearly 12-minute live performance of "Marbletown."

The penultimate number on this night featured McCusker transforming some simple fiddle plucks into a placid orchestral piece that became an old-fashioned hoedown, with England's McGoldrick (left, who also contributed Uilleann pipes and assorted whistles) getting Irish jiggy with it.

A standing ovation followed as the band members left their respective positions to join Knopfler front and center, with McGoldrick, Fletcher and Worf hugging it out, fittingly enough, as Brothers in Arms.

Immediately preceding "Marbletown," the title song from Dire Straits' most popular album was instantly recognized by a crowd that hooted and hollered. But without any sense of pretense or stage theatrics, Knopfler never encouraged any audience participation, letting it happen naturally when they spontaneously sang along to the "So Far Away" finale.

Though he may never get the reverential treatment reserved for America's finest elder statesmen, Knopfler, whose "encore" came as a guest guitarist five songs into Dylan's set on "The Levee's Gonna Break," can't worry about that. The tour with Dylan continues through Thanksgiving week, followed by months of European dates in 2013, including six nights at London's Royal Albert Hall.

For the Working Class Guitar Hero, there's more road work to do.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Mark Knopfler in concert at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield.