Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris
At the Santa Barbara Bowl, Thursday, June 29.
Reviewed by Brett Leigh Dicks
From Iron & Wine’s melodious marriage with Calexico to Nick Cave’s curious flirtation with Kylie Minogue, contemporary collaboration embraces both the logical and the bizarre. So when word got out that Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris had been secretly fusing their musical skills — a partnership that gave birth to last month’s All the Roadrunning — ears naturally perked up. And in front of a near capacity Santa Barbara Bowl on Thursday night, their dueling dynamics certainly showed.
With a lack of fanfare and pretense, Emmylou Harris, Mark Knopfler, and the usual members of his musical supporting cast ambled onto center stage. By the time the ensemble had launched into the fiery “Red Staggerwing,” the stage was blazing brighter than the sunset sky. The zealous lyrical exchange of two cavorting lovers had hints of Johnny and June, but the tempo relaxed when Harris’s refined acoustics signaled the arrival of her splendid ballad “Michelangelo.”
Throughout the evening, the musical direction shifted freely between songs off their recorded partnership and offerings from their respective back catalogues. Harris presented moving renditions of introspective gems like “Red Dirt Girl” and “Boulder to Birmingham” while Knopfler served up the blues-drenched “Song for Sonny Liston” and “All That Matters.” But while these were enthusiastically received, it was Knopfler’s laconic vocals and the twanging strings from his National steel guitar that perpetuated the beautiful melody of the Dire Straits classic “Romeo and Juliet,” which brought the crowd to its feet.
If that song hinted at what the assembled were craving, then the encore undoubtedly confirmed it. As a swirl of synthesizers pierced through the smoke that blanketed the stage, the audience rose to their feet. Hands clapped, pelvises twisted, and voices joined with Knopfler as he led us led through one of popular music’s seminal moments “So Far Away.” If someone told me 20 years ago at a Dire Straits concert that Knopfler would one day perform that song with Emmylou Harris, I would’ve gasped in disbelief. But there was Harris, bouncing and beaming and complementing Knopfler’s understated vocals with her own angelic accompaniment. While foresight might have deemed such a union improbable, hindsight declares it providence.